Privacy for Writers

It’s more than just a phone setting.

Privacy for Writers

Whether you’re transfixed by Edward Snowden or making decisions about your Facebook settings, it’s hard to avoid thinking about privacy these days. For writers, privacy is a weighty term. Privacy means an expansive mental space that is inaccessible to the world outside. Privacy is what writers have craved since storytellers first chiseled words into rocks; they’ve just given it different names over time.

In a recent New Yorker blog entitled “Virginia Woolf’s Idea of Privacy,” Joshua Rothman explores the writer’s views on the subject. Meandering through Mrs. Dalloway with the same cadence that Clarissa wanders through her day, Rothman offers up Woolf’s belief in a “certain resolute innerness — a kernel of selfhood that we can’t share with others.” Both Woolf and Clarissa understand that love and intimacy only take you so far; “at the end of the path, you fall back on the austere, solitary dignity of the inner life.”

Solitude as indispensable nourishment for writers weaves through Woolf’s work and is implicit, if not explicit, in her insistence that women need A Room of One’s Own, “let alone a quiet or a sound-proof room.” Woolf prizes economic independence because it makes possible a room that “stands for the power to contemplate…a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself.”

This physical and mental “lock on the door” is a necessity for a writer, whose work must be done in isolation. In his recent memoir, The Book of My Lives, Aleksandar Hemon divides the writer’s consciousness into “interiority” and “exteriority,” using these terms with such frequency and familiarity that it is clear they form a critical part of his vernacular.

Interiority, Hemon suggests, is the secret sauce without which a writer cannot create. Leading the reader through a deeply personal account of the siege of Sarajevo that is harrowing in its understatement, Hemon concludes that “war is the most concrete thing there can be, a fantastic reality that levels both the interiority and exteriority into the flatness of a crushed soul.” In other words, the terrible consequence of compressing the exterior life into the interior is not only starved creativity, but also humanity’s destruction.

In the first volume of My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard records the powerful sensation of riding on a train, staring at the “burning red ball in the sky.” The “pleasure that suffused me was so sharp and came with such intensity that it was indistinguishable from pain.”

Knausgaard likens this sensation to Norwegian paintings pre Edvard Munch. Those pre-modern, “realistic” paintings offer the viewer the space between “reality and the portrayal of reality.” It is in this space where it “happened” for Knausgaard, “when the world seemed to step forward from the world,” a reference to his own sense of wonder and mystery.

What happens for Knausgaard post Edvard Munch? Humans now “swallow up everything, make everything theirs. The mountains, the sea, the trees, and the forests, everything is colored by humanness.” Man’s “inner life is given an outer form, the world is shaken up…there is no longer any dynamism between the outer and the inner.” The result is that “the limits of that which cannot speak to us — the unfathomable — no longer exist.”

Knausgaard considers this development a loss. For him, language is the only place left “where the incomprehensible and the otherness have been sought.” Given his expression of the closeness between pleasure and pain, and “the enormous significance” he attributes to his ability to access these emotions, Knausgaard’s “incomprehensible otherness” appears to be Hemon’s “interiority,” which appears to be Woolf’s highly valued “privacy.”

Joshua Rothman acknowledges that privacy, for Woolf, bears the stamp “of a very particular time and place.” But, he asserts, her “sense of privacy still feels relevant.” He’s correct. For writers, it is the elixir of creativity.

Martha Anne Toll’s work has appeared on NPR and in the Millions, Narrative Magazine, and the Washington Independent Review of Books. She is executive director of a nationwide philanthropy focused on ending homelessness and the death penalty.

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