Writing: the Great Escape?

If you’ve ever read a book and enjoyed it, you’ll be familiar with the feeling of slipping into the pages of a novel. Reading a good book feels like an escape. It is a release from the daily burden of an ordinary, contained life and an ordinary, contained self.

Writing, too, is a solitary act, and arguably necessitates escape. Comparing reading and writing, Susan Sontag wrote: “Like reading, rapturous reading, writing fiction – inhabiting other selves – feels like losing yourself too.”

There are as many kinds of writers as there are books, but all writers share the desire – or at least the willingness – to spend time alone inside their heads. Seeking solitude with words, writers separate themselves in a space away from family and friends. Silence may or may not be a prerequisite. There are writers who write in coffee shops, those who write to music. But the process is the same: a writer sits still and imposes order upon a raging imagination. (This of course, is on a good writing day, not the kind where your mind is blanker than the sheet of paper in front of you.)

Writing fiction involves double the escape: the act of being alone is an escape from our surroundings, and inhabiting the consciousness of another is an escape from ourselves.

But unlike other forms of escape such as reading, or watching a movie, writing leaves us with a more tangible result – scribblings on paper. In the process of escape, we have written something down. What does this mean?

Writers are often considered daydreamers, observing the world from the sidelines. Permanently once removed. But is it the other way around? Are writers more engaged with the world than those who do not choose to slip away and pen their observations? 

Anais Nin touched on this when she wrote, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” Choosing to go over something a second time is hardly an escape.

It is no wonder that some writers have been sceptical of the idea of writing as an escape. Flannery O’Connor said:

“Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”

A plunge into reality. Writing may not be an escape from “real life” – but rather, a way into it.

American writer Gish Jen wrestled with the utility, or as she saw it, the futility of writing. In an essay in The New York Times, she explored a problem all writers face – of writing and living competing with each other, of being caught between two worlds. For a time, she quit writing, which she had begun to see as “a pitiful attempt to give our leafy lives rocklike weight and meaning.”

Soon, however, she felt “as though I were at a party, sitting out the dance.” The absence of writing made her feel removed from the world. “I missed discovering what I thought – or rather, watching what I thought dissolve under my pen. I missed looking hard at things.” Without her writing, Jen felt distanced from life.

Possibly, then, writing is both escape and its opposite. Perhaps it is precisely when you take a step away that you can confront reality, and examine and grasp the world around you. Writers must escape the world to write, but only after they have sufficiently dug in.

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