Very few walks of life have left been untouched by the coronavirus. The cultural treasures of the world sit eerily empty, and almost everyone is at home observing the social-distancing and self-isolation guidelines that have been rolled out in recent weeks. For many, it all feels a bit dystopian and weird at times.
There’s one profession, however, that has remained relatively unchanged by the need to be cocooned at home, stewing in the angst of isolation and reflecting on one’s inner life. It’s a profession that thrives on self-isolation and channeling one’s aloneness into powerful, transformative art that serves as a balm for the lonely souls of others. That profession is, of course,
making dank memes writing!
Writers are a broody bunch at the best of times, ranging from elusive to downright reclusive. But they offer a form of inspiration these days when many people are stuck at home fending off mortal anxiety with daydreams and stockpiles of hard liquor. It’s cathartic to think that this is exactly how many of the greatest literary works in history were written – by reclusive authors, shuttered away from social life, turning their despair into fame, adoration and cash-money.
So if you’ve binged your way through Netflix, and feel a restless sense of existential angst stirring in the deep, take some inspiration from some of these cloistered scribes. Who knows? Maybe you’ve got a masterpiece in you too.
George R.R. Martin: Finally finishing The Winds of Winter!
Okay, so the first name on this list doesn’t exactly qualify for the title of reclusive author. But, the mind behind the epic Song of Ice and Fire saga, which inspired HBO’s colossally successful Game of Thrones series, has finally retreated to a remote cabin in an undisclosed location to pen the final installment of his wildly popular fantasy novel series.
This is good news for anyone who was left feeling let down by the final two seasons of Game of Thrones, which were the only ones not based on Martin’s source material. Self-professed writer’s block and the fact that many of his books are north of 1,000 pages-long have delayed the final book for aeons, much to the chagrin of his legions of fans.
However, the worldwide lockdown has lit a fire under the project put on ice for so long. And now everyone can rest easy, knowing that Martin is hard at work, crafting a nice, happy ending to the book series known for its cheerful feel-good factor…
Emily Dickinson: The emo phase that never ended
One of the most prototypically reclusive writers of them all, Emily Dickinson took social distancing and the tortured artist trope to the next level. The American poet spent the best part of 55 years self-isolating inside her family home, and eventually refused to even leave the confines of her own bedroom.
She wore only all-white garments which, combined with her lack of vitamin D, gave her something of a ghostly countenance. She refused to acknowledge anyone new who entered the house and only interacted with the outside world through the written word. In a move that’ll be familiar to people in coronavirus quarantine, she was also known to lower a basket from her second-floor window, and reel back in the goods when people brought her groceries. Textbook.
Ironically, Dickinson’s poetry displays a razor-sharp perception of love, friendship, life, and death that belies her lack of direct experience with human contact. Her extensive body of wistful work was largely unpublished and undiscovered until after her death, but she has since become one of the most beloved and studied American poets.
If nothing else, her commitment to self-isolation puts the temporary measures of today into some kind of perspective.
Harper Lee: Sweet home Alabama
The thing about writing one of the Great American Novels is that it’s a hard act to follow. Harper Lee found this out after her masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird was published. The beautiful coming-of-age novel about the systemic injustice and racism that Lee witnessed growing up in Alabama was an instant classic. It sold millions of copies and won the Pulitzer Prize – not bad for a first attempt!
Lee was sky-rocketed to international acclaim, something which she was not at all prepared for. Suffering from acute bouts of fame-induced anxiety, she retreated into her home and refused to give interviews. But the success of her first book appeared to work against her ability to write.
To Kill a Mockingbird remained the only thing ever published by Lee, until 2015 when Go Set a Watchman was released. At first, many people thought it was a sequel which Lee had written in isolation, however, it’s widely accepted now that it was actually the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Not bad for a second attempt!
J.D. Salinger: “Get off my lawn!”
Like Harper Lee, but with more guard dogs and double-barrel shotguns. J.D. Salinger retreated from the public eye almost immediately after his bestseller novel, The Catcher in The Rye was published. He fled New York, bought a secluded house in Cornish, New Hampshire, and promptly became a recluse with whom it was best not to trifle. To put it mildly!
Echoing many of the sentiments in the book itself, Salinger decried the celebrity status he had earned as ‘phony’ and did everything in his power to become un-famous. He had his picture removed from the dust-sleeves of hardcover copies of his book, sued people who attempted to write a biography of him, and in 1992, after half of his property was engulfed in a house fire, refused to emerge from the charred carcass of his home when the news crews showed up.
Given the cultural impact of The Catcher in The Rye, and the mystique that naturally comes with refusing to enter the public eye, journalists were initially slow to get the memo. But those who tried to coax an interview out of Salinger at his property were generally met by his steely gaze squinting down the barrel of his favorite shotgun, accompanied by the snarling snouts of his attack-hounds in pounce formation.
This was, after all, a man who landed on Utah Beach in Normandy in World War II and fought his way to Paris (where he met one Ernest Hemingway), and who once remarked: “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose”. One of the last-known photos of Salinger shows him with his face contorted in rage and fist clenched ready to punch through the window of a reporter’s car. Classic Salinger.
Thomas Pynchon: The man, the myth
There are more photos of Bigfoot in circulation than of Thomas Pynchon, a man with the sort of anonymity that J.D. Salinger could only have dreamed of. Pynchon, the author of bestsellers like V., The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, Inherent Vice, and others, is one of the most mysterious and enigmatic literary figures in history.
A reclusive author par excellence, very little is known about Pynchon’s private life or even his whereabouts these days. There are only a handful of photographs of him, the majority of which date from his school, college, and Navy days. In one remarkably rare public appearance, Pynchon parodied his reclusive nature on an episode of The Simpsons (wearing a bag over his animated face, of course).
He’s so reclusive that for a time, some people speculated that Pynchon was, in fact, a pen-name/false identity invented by Salinger so that he could keep writing books – without having to waste perfectly good shotgun shells on warning shots.
Given the fact that Salinger passed away in 2010, and Pynchon’s latest novel, Bleeding Edge, was published in 2013, that particular theory has lost traction. Which obviously leaves Bigfoot as the prime suspect.
Hunter S. Thompson: The sherrif of Bat Country
Rampaging through the deserts of Nevada on a demented, drug-fueled bender isn’t typical reclusive author’s behavior. And while the notorious father of Gonzo journalism was definitely not a shrinking violet in his early days, later years saw him retreat from public life. He spent his twilight years holed up in his Colorado ranch, shooting guns at gas barrels and drinking a lot of Wild Turkey.
Thompson continued to write, but his work failed to reach the literary highs of his early articles for Rolling Stone and the epic novels which were compiled from them. His public appearances became less and less frequent, and escalating feuds with his neighbors over some of his more erratic tendencies, like his late-night machine-gunning, saw him become more and more isolated and reclusive.
Then again, after you’ve lived a life that includes infiltrating the Hells Angels, riding the wave of 60’s counterculture to its high-water mark, and inventing a style of journalism that specifically places the writer in insane situations – all the while intoxicated on a dangerous cocktail of psychedelic narcotics – pretty much everything seems reclusive by comparison.
Blazing a trail through the Mojave Desert with the wind in your hair will taste all the sweeter when life gets back to normal.
Marcel Proust: The insomniac
When you line the walls and floors of your house in cork and blackout all your windows to block out the sights and sounds of Paris, you know you’re Marcel Proust. One of the most ingeniously talented writers of all time, Proust lived a life beset by sickness and isolation. A lifelong sufferer of severe asthma, he spent much of his youth indoors, unable to go outside and play with other children. He also developed an acute form of agoraphobia as a result. Interestingly, his father was an epidemiologist and professor of hygiene who studied cholera outbreaks.
After the death of his parents, Proust’s own health declined dramatically, and he spent the final 17 years of his life as a reclusive hermit. Isolated in a room with no sunlight, he would sometimes write for days at a time without sleeping and eventually became almost entirely nocturnal. This is basically the only way to write a 3,200-page magnum opus all about ephemeral memories, the meaninglessness of life, and the cruel and ceaseless march of time.
Speaking of which, if ever there was a time to binge-read Proust’s seven-volume masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), it’s right now. Although Proust would probably argue that the time has already passed.
Anne Frank: The fugitive
The most famous child author in history, who became an iconic symbol of courage and resilience in the face of cruelty, Anne Frank’s short life was made immortal by her own writing in isolation. During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Anne Frank hid in a secret annex of an Amsterdam attic, behind a movable bookcase with her family, and four other Jewish fugitives.
Chronicling her daily sense of fear, boredom, and hopes for a future beyond the terror of war, The Diary of a Young Girl, (aka The Diary of Anne Frank) was written during two years of total isolation from the outside world. While the young girl had her sister and parents, and four other people for company, a sense of aloneness is present on almost every page. Addressing her diary as ‘Kitty’, Anne imagined a best friend and confidante with whom to share her most intimate reflections on life and her tragic situation.
It’s a heartbreaking read, knowing that she and her family were ultimately betrayed and discovered. Anne Frank died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, but her life story has outlived every Nazi soldier of World War II. It’s been translated into 67 languages and has sold 30 million copies.
An emblem of Amsterdam, Anne Frank’s house is now a world-famous museum. There are numerous Anne Frank tours around the city that showcase the places she mentions in her diary, as well as other places of Jewish historical significance in Amsterdam.
William Shakespeare: The O.G.
In case you (or George R.R. Martin) need reminding that quarantine can be a fruitful time for creative brainstorming and writing productivity, look no further than the Bard. Shakespeare was housebound for much of the early 17th century as outbreaks of the bubonic plague swept across Europe. The plague decimated the population and forced theatres and playhouses, from which he derived much of his income, to shut its doors.
Grim themes of death and pestilence are rife throughout the works Shakespeare completed around this time. There are overt references to plague symptoms in a number of his famous plays. King Lear is especially gloomy and grotesque, and echoes the atmosphere of isolation, anxiety, and revulsion that plague-riddled London must have instilled in everyone, as church bells tolled around the city to herald every new death.
“A plague upon your epileptic visage!”, or “plagues that hang in this pendulous air”, and “a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood” are just some of the choice phrases from King Lear. Mercutio’s famous last words as he cursed the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet were “A plague on both your houses!”, another nod to the pandemic of the times. Bit harsh though, Mercutio.
So, maybe, there’s a way to turn quarantine into masterpiece source-material. No pressure then!
Honorable mentions: Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Bob Dylan, David Foster Wallace.
Writers aren’t the only ones who use self-isolation to escape into the world of creativity; artists are notorious for it too. So get to work and use this time to create something beautiful. These wanderlust-sparking stories will help get the creative juices flowing until you can explore the great outdoors again.