Isolation and Accountability
- By Leila Rafei
- February 7, 2022
Trading solitude for the support of a writing community.
When I started writing Spring, the first thing I did was isolate myself. Weekends were spent holed up in my childhood bedroom, eking out page after page in lieu of a social life. Some friendships took a hit as I ignored calls mid-sentence.
It was hard to explain that, yes, I was at home, all alone and plugging away at a story nobody asked me to write, but I could not talk. I was on a warpath to finish my novel and knew that I would never even get past a first draft without a certain level of hermitude.
At that time, I was living with my parents in the DC suburbs, working from my old bedroom, which had sat idle for decades, at a desk with broken drawers and missing knobs. All around, the imprint of my past life: horse figurines and dried-up snow globes, Nancy Drew and Goosebumps books, emo song lyrics I’d painted onto the walls. And in every corner, all the familiar creaks and shadows of the ghosts that would keep me up at night as a kid.
The setting could not have been more different from that of my novel, which takes place in revolutionary Cairo, where I had no history before moving there for grad school in 2010. In Egypt, I could fit all my possessions in a single suitcase. Desert and city grime instead of manicured suburban greenery. A constant cacophony of car horns in place of the chirping of crickets and cicadas in the trees.
About all that Cairo had in common with my hometown was hellish traffic. When I later returned to DC, I spent those long, miserable rush-hour commutes on the Beltway daydreaming of the story I wanted to write but didn’t know how to begin. If Cairo had provided the inspiration, then DC allowed me the distance and space I needed to write the story that had evaded me throughout years of writer’s block.
I could hear myself think. I could take a step back and look at Cairo more objectively. I could isolate myself within the comfort of home without all the distractions of the unfamiliar.
But familiarity had its limits. In DC, I initially didn’t know any other writers, much less anybody who’d entertained the idea of writing a novel. So, my first readers were friends and family who knew better than to trigger me with honest feedback and had as little clue as I did about what came next in the publication process.
I knew it seemed silly to tell people I was writing a book without even knowing how, but I told everyone anyway to hold myself accountable. What I needed was to make contact with people who wouldn’t find such a proclamation crazy — or, at least, not too crazy to try.
When I learned about the Inner Loop reading series, I signed up for a reading in hopes of not only making this novel thing “official,” but also to connect with people who were writers, too. I printed a few of my favorite pages from the latest manuscript –– by that point, I’d lost count of how many drafts –– and invited some friends along for moral support.
After my reading, the response from the Inner Loop community was incredibly supportive and encouraging. A few audience members approached me afterward to say they looked forward to reading the book. The book. It was official: This was a thing — a thing that could actually happen.
Writing a novel can be such a drawn-out, tedious process full of rejection and frustration, so writers need all the validation they can get. I found that connecting with fellow writers was the best way to keep up my morale and become a better writer myself.
Though I no longer live in DC, my experience with the Inner Loop taught me to prioritize building a community, which is what I did when I moved to New York. I’ve met so many other writers through workshops and readings like the Inner Loop series, and some have become good friends.
Two years ago, a few of us started our own small workshop and have been swapping pages regularly ever since. My writing community has also kept me going during the pandemic, as I’ve struggled to delineate the time and space to write as the fallout of lockdown infringes on what was once a sacred space.
For me, these connections are just as important to the writing process as the solitude it takes to get words on a page. As I’ve learned, filling pages is just the beginning.
[Editor’s note: This piece is in support of the Inner Loop’s “Author’s Corner,” a monthly campaign that spotlights a DC-area writer and their recently published work from a small to medium-sized publisher. The Inner Loop connects talented local authors to lit lovers in the community through live readings, author interviews, featured book sales at Potter's House, and through Eat.Drink.Read., a collaboration with restaurant partners Pie Shop, Shaw’s Tavern, and Reveler’s Hour to promote the author through special events and menu and takeout inserts.]
Leila Rafei was born and raised in the Washington, DC, area, went to school in Cairo, Egypt, and now lives in New York, where she works for the ACLU. Spring is her first novel.