Posted by Sheila Connolly

Recently I've been wondering if I have become a writer because I like to work alone, or if it's because I'm a writer that I end up spending a lot of my time alone.

WolfSheepThe public mythology holds that writers are solitary creatures. How else can you hear the voices in your head and set down their words on paper? You need quiet to be able to focus. You do not need people interrupting you, whining about the laundry that is mouldering in the washer or the fact that dinner isn't on the table RIGHT NOW and there's a soccer practice in ten minutes and you said you'd drive. I know there are writers out there who grab every minute they can, before the family wakes up (I had one single-mother friend who used to get up at four o'clock in the morning just so she could write–that's true dedication), or while waiting in the car at that soccer game, or on the train while commuting to the "real" job. I admire them tremendously, but I can't do it. I need to hear myself think.

On the other hand, I find now that I'm much more eager to talk to people–everybody, anybody–when I do tear myself away from my laptop and sally forth into the real world. I will strike up conversations with store clerks, or strangers waiting in line. I never used to do this, and now I wonder if we all have some quota of spoken words that we need to expend and I'm trying to jam it all into short bursts.

And somehow this makes me think about leadership. It seems that in this life, there are leaders and there are followers. But who decides which is which? Do leaders just float to the top naturally? Do followers recognize the innate abilities of leaders and flock to do their bidding? Where are the rules for this?

When a friend and I read Tolkien's Ring Trilogy, back when it was first released in this country, we were discussing it one day and I said, I don't want to be Frodo, I want to be Sam. Then she said, so did she. (Of course, I always thought Sam was the real hero, and Frodo was something of a prig, but anyway...) I've always been the faithful sidekick, the loyal lieutenant, the one who carried out someone else's instructions.

The problem was, since I was "the smart kid" and went to the right colleges, I thought that I was supposed to be a Leader with a capital L. People kind of assumed that I would be. Only I wasn't very good at it. I tried, really. I applied for the "important" jobs and offered to run volunteer things. Through a strange combination of circumstances, one of those important jobs put me in the position of telling states and major cities how to manage their finances. The tiny firm where I worked in the nineties struggled to keep the City of Philadelphia from going bankrupt, and I guess we succeeded, because they didn't (we can't claim all the credit–the city avoided bankruptcy largely because nobody in the country knew what to do with a bankrupt city). Looking back at it, it scares the bleep out of me. What did I know? Who was I to be telling these people what to do?

I guess my bottom line is, despite all that practice, and all my good intentions, I'm not comfortable telling other people what to do. Which brings me to my point (in case you were wondering where it had wandered off to.) The exception is, in my books. That's the lovely thing about writing: you can make your characters do whatever you want them to. They won't talk back. If they misbehave, you can kill them off. And even better, you can shape them. You can make them the "you" you'd like to be–better, smarter, stronger. You can cherrypick your own traits and implant them in your protagonists, while weeding out the ones you don't like. Or you can create a person you'd like to be but know you never will be.

And, as you sit alone in your cubicle/office/attic hideaway, busily scribbling, your books are your domain, and you reign supreme. That's a good feeling. So maybe that's why I write: to create a little universe where I am in charge–where I am the leader.

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Comment by Robert Freemyer on January 15, 2008 at 1:27am
I was always a social person until I became a columnist. I quit the column after a couple of years because that small amount of fame took away my novel writing time. I can now understand why most writers turn into recluses after they write a best seller...and for the flegling this presents a problem in marketing. I self published my first novel and whether it does well or not, it's out there and I'm secluded in my woods enjoying the quiet and writing like never before.

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