I can think up many a reasons for packing up my apartment and traveling to the other side of the world by myself. I want to learn new languages, understand other nations, see the rainforest, and climb strange mountains… But the real motivation for leaving home is to learn one thing: to be alone.
I’ve always had this romantic notion that to be a true artist—whatever that truly means—one must have a personality that thrives on solitude. I imagine a painter locked up in a basement for days, weeks, months, working on her masterpiece. Or picture Virginia Wolf shooing away servers in her country retreat in Sussex, in self-imposed imprisonment, to think, to write, to be alone.
After John Steinbeck finished college he was broke and needed to find a way to support himself that afforded him the time to write. The 24-year old aspiring writer accepted a job at a large estate in Lake Tahoe as its sole caretaker. “It required that I be snowed in for eight months every year. My nearest neighbor was four miles away,” he wrote.
Imagine John Steinbeck stuck in a large, empty house surrounded by snow in self-imposed solitary confinement. For the sake of bread and art. He must have embraced loneliness so well. Or so it makes one think.
Yet in reading the thick volume made up of some 900 of John Steinbeck’s letters written to friends, family, agents, and colleagues, Steinbeck seems to me neither a hermit nor a particularly withdrawn man. On the contrary, he was afraid of being alone just as much as the next person (i.e. me).
Here are the first sentences of the first letter in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters:
I can hear readers say that being alone and/or lonely are two different states—you can be alone yet not feel lonely or be surrounded by people yet feel ghastly lonesome. The fear of solitude hurts precisely because you feel in your gut that loneliness will surely accompany it. The monsters that creep up in the dark are “only part of it.”
Reading about Steinbeck’s fears gave me courage as I prepare to embark on my own journey. Long hours of alone time in distant lands with Microsoft Word as my buddy awaits me. Being alone also means that I will not be available to support my family and friends, as I have grown used to through the years.
In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell says that ״all writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.”
I crave this period of selfish aloneness. I’m scared and I’m excited. How I shall live up to it is yet to be seen. Especially considering that I am writing this post from my most-frequented coffee shop in Tel Aviv, Cafe Xoho (best cookies and beer bread in the city), with only a vague plan of when I will actually embark on this journey. At least in the meanwhile, I can still write about the journeys past and present!