Philip K. Dick on the Loneliness of Being a Writer

In The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writing, PKD wrote about his struggles with loneliness during his career as an author. In the following quotes, he explains how writing and loneliness are and aren’t related.

“Writing is a lonely way of life. You shut yourself up in your study and work and work. For instance, I have had the same agent for twenty-seven years and I’ve never met him.”

Being an author requires spending many hours reading, writing, and editing, which leaves little time for a social or family life. 

“That’s another of the ills of writing; because it is such a solitary occupation, and requires such long-term concentrated attention, it tends to drive your wife or girlfriend away, anyhow, whoever you’re living with. It’s probably the most painful price the writer pays. All I have to keep me company are two cats.”

The time a writer spends writing needs to be focused with no distractions. Even while not explicitly writing, a writer’s mind may still be focused on the story. That could upset the writer’s loved ones, as even when they’re together, the writer’s mind is elsewhere. 

“This world attracts persons who are not loners but are lonely; and between those two distinctions there is a crucial difference.”

A “loner” is someone who wants to be alone while someone who is “lonely” is alone but doesn’t want to be. PKD is lonely, in that he must be alone to write, but he wishes he could spend more time with others.

“I have a strong feeling, having met so many of my colleagues over the years, that there is almost universally among them a love of human beings and a concern for them, a desire for closeness.”

PKD noticed a similar trait among fellow writers—they are mostly lonely, not loners. If you write fiction, you are writing about people, for people. Writers wouldn’t sacrifice so much time working alone to create art for others if they didn’t care about others.

“I have met many, many of my colleagues over the years, and I find them genial, warm, friendly people who hate the isolation imposed on them by the tragically solitary act of having to go off and lock oneself into one’s study for a year to do a novel, not allowing any interruptions…writing is a lonely profession, at least I have found it so, and this is what I hold against my work: not that it allows me to escape into the ‘fantasies’ of my novels but that it cuts me off from wife, children, and friends. I resent that. We all do.”

The loneliness and isolation from friends and family is not something writers want, but they need in order to write. Writing is not like most other jobs where you can pause while in the middle of working (for a phone call or to attend to family matters) then get right back to work. Fiction writers have entire worlds, characters, and storylines in their heads which requires getting into a deeply focused mindset to keep it all together. A pause for a two-minute phone call does not just take two minutes—it may take much longer to get back into that same frame of mind required to write.

“I find that there is enough extroversion in SF writers to cause them to yearn, to strive — and very successfully — to relate to other people; they are not motivated by the wish to withdraw, but by the necessity of solitude involved in the mechanics of the work itself. They have, let me say, enough extroversion to seek out whenever possible their colleagues and fans, to lecture, to speak on the radio and TV, to be interviewed…but then they must go back into that lonely little office for a period of time that, not counting food breaks and sleep breaks, may run, for a good novel, two years.”

Most writers tend to be introverted because of the amount of solitude required, though there are certainly extraverted writers as well. Introverts can step out of their shell on occasion, as PKD says, to do public interviews, though they tend to be more comfortable when writing alone.

“SF writers are not loners. Caught halfway between going out to petition versus retiring into solitude — caught between the political activist and the pure scientist — they have or at least I have found SF a workable compromise: I can be with my characters when I write, I can love them and support their anguished hopes as I would my ‘actual’ friends — we do, in the final analysis, write about people, however idea-oriented our stories — and yet I don’t have to be manning the barricades, be out on the street waving a banner, where I really don’t belong.”

PKD contrasts two types of people: activists and scientists. A science fiction writer is a sort of hybrid between the two, in that you can create political change by working in isolation. There is no shortage of science fiction books that have had major influence on politics, PKD’s included.

“Probably, as I do, most SF writers, like most fiction writers in general, solve this by creating characters in their stories to keep them company during the long, lonely, isolated chore of work.”

Writers can become so close to their characters that they almost become real people. In that way, a fiction writer is never really alone.

“Loneliness is the great curse that hangs over a writer. A while ago I wrote twelve novels in a row, plus fourteen magazine pieces. I did it out of loneliness. It constituted communication for me.” 

When writing, I often have conversations inside my head, taking the perspective of each character. Many of these conversations are created from scenarios in real life—conversations I wish I could have had and things I wish I would have said.

“As to my own writing. Reading it does not mean anything to me, all considerations as to how good it is or isn’t, what I do well and what I do badly. What matters to me is the writing, the act of manufacturing the novel, because while I am doing it, at that particular moment, I am in the world I’m writing about. It is real to me, completely and utterly. Then, when I’m finished, and have to stop, withdraw from that world forever — that destroys me. The men and women have ceased talking. They no longer move. I’m alone.”

When writing a longer work like a novel you can become so immersed in the world of the story that it feels real—a sort of parallel world (which PKD wrote about). Though personally, after spending two years on one story, I become exhausted by that world and those characters and want to move on to something entirely new.

“I promise myself: I will never write another novel. I will never again imagine people from whom I will eventually be cut off. I tell myself this…and, secretly and cautiously, I begin another book.”

PKD almost exclusively wrote standalone novels, so when a book was finished those characters would never return. Considering the connection he felt toward his characters, it’s surprising he didn’t write more series.

“Once written, the novel speaks generally to everyone, not specifically to me. When a novel of mine comes out I have no more relationship to it than has anyone who reads it — far less, in fact, because I have the memory of Mr. Tagomi and all the others… My friends are dead, and as much as I love my wife, daughter, cat — none of these nor all of these is enough. The vacuum is terrible. Don’t write for a living; sell shoelaces. Don’t let it happen to you.”

When a book is published, the characters who were previously friends only to the writer, are now “friends” to everyone who reads it. The writer no longer has a private intimate relationship with those characters—they belong to everyone.

As Philip K. Dick explained, writing is a lonely profession because it requires an enormous amount of time spent working alone. Some people are drawn to write because they are already lonely and find writing a way to connect to others—by creating characters then sharing them with readers. Others may not be lonely at all but feel compelled to sacrifice time with friends and family to share a story with the world. Once written, a book can be read by countless other lonely people to help them feel less alone.

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