How Solitude Feeds the Brain

The novelist Jami Attenberg shares a poem that helped her understand her own relationship to isolation.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Writers, says the novelist Jami Attenberg, often like to be alone. But few take solitude as far as the Cuban poet Dulce María Loynaz. For decades, Loynaz lived alone in a mansion at the center of Havana, writing enigmatic, evocative poems—many of them just one line—that could be both deeply confessional and stubbornly withholding. In a conversation for this series, Attenberg, the author of All This Could Be Yours, explained how the poems collected in Absolute Solitude, an English translation of Loynaz’s work, helped her create her characters and understand her own relationship to isolation. We talked about the difference between solitude and loneliness, why long walks are central to her creative practice, and how one’s brain can be one’s best companion.

All This Could Be Yours focuses on the death and dark legacy of a patriarch, Victor Tuchman, who suffers a sudden heart attack in the book’s first pages. Set over the course of a single day, the novel traces the cruel man’s impact on his surviving family members. Besides the secret betrayals that can splinter a family, the book is also about various ways people handle everyday forms of loneliness—a condition that can be a curse, a gift, a justification, or maybe the doorway to the gods.

Jami Attenberg is the New York Times best-selling author of seven books of fiction, including The Middlesteins and All Grown Up. Her nonfiction appears in venues like The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Longreads, among other publications. She lives in New Orleans, and spoke with me by phone.

Jami Attenberg: In the spring of 2018, I was in San Francisco for three days on the paperback tour for my last book. My events happened in the evening, so I had my days free, which was an amazing luxury, and because I was staying in the Mission—a neighborhood with some really great bookstores—I decided to take one day just to walk from one bookstore to another. Some of those stores have been there for many, many years, and they each have their own sensibility. I was in the right place, at that moment, to go in and see what these bookstores had to say to me.

I was browsing through the poetry section of Dog Eared Books when I found a collection called Absolute Solitude by Dulce María Loynaz. It was one of their recommended books of poetry at the time, one that came with a strong letter of reference from the staff. “Read this immediately,” I think it said. That’s the magic of those little cards you sometimes see next to books. If someone’s very excited and encouraging about a text, I usually listen to them.

I bought many books that day, from many different stores across the city. But Absolute Solitude was the big winner. I knew walking out that it was going to be like a little bomb going off for me. And that’s what it turned out to be.

Throughout that summer, I was working on finishing my new novel, All This Could Be Yours. When I’m able to read poetry for an hour or so before I write, I find that it just elevates the language. Whatever you read influences what comes out on the page. Sometimes, when I’m working on a novel and it feels like too many sentences are just getting the job done, I’ll write a “poetry draft”—a draft where I read tons of poetry before writing, just to make sure the language is as elegant and lyrical and poetic as it can be.

It was in that mode that I started reading Absolute Solitude, and I found the book’s themes starting to influence me as well. I started to think about the ways that loneliness could be different from solitude. All This Could Be Yours is about these lonely characters—some who claim loneliness for themselves in a good way, and some who claim it in a bad way.

My protagonist, Victor, is an inherently lonely person in the way that narcissists tend to be lonely. Because he feels so alone, he feels justified to be a total mercenary. He doesn’t believe in the afterlife in any way. He never feels he will be judged. If he does something wrong, it doesn’t matter—because life is only about his pleasure, or his entertainment, or the thrill he gets from being cruel. His attitude is: We’re just here on Earth, and whatever we do when we’re here is what we do, and then we’re gone. To me, that’s such a lonely mentality. But then there are other characters for whom the quality of being alone is—at least potentially—something rich and sustaining, almost to the point of being a worldview or an aesthetic.

Loynaz’s work expresses this outlook beautifully. “The world gave me many things, but the only thing I ever kept was absolute solitude,” she writes, in a one-line poem from her Poems Without Names series. I love the idea of solitude being a gift. I think we can be afraid of being lonely, but if you figure out a way to own it and see it as a treasure and a pleasure and a joy, then it can be quite comforting. I have a place to go in my head that’s just my place, and I value that alone time so much. I wouldn’t be able to be me without it.

Still, Loynaz also seems to recognize that too much solitude can be isolating, alienating, maybe even dangerous. In a subsequent poem, she writes: “Solitude! Ever dreamed of solitude! I love you so much I sometimes fear God will punish me by filling my life with you.” Be careful, she almost seems to say. The idea that solitude is a be-careful-what-you-wish-for thing is something I think about and write about all the time. Like, what if it was only you? What if a plane crashes and you’re on an island by yourself? I don’t know how happy I’d be that way. There’s a tension there. I do say, “All I want is to be left alone with my own thoughts”—but also, “Pick up the phone when I call.” Solitude is better as a block of time than as an entire existence.

My morning process is that I’ll take a walk in the morning, usually for about an hour. Then I’ll read for an hour. Then I’ll handwrite for a couple of hours. I spend the afternoons typing everything up. If I can do about 1,000 words a day, that’s a good day’s work.

For me, walks are such an important part of the process. From the outside, they might seem like a waste of time. But my brain is chewing on problems the entire time. It takes me about half an hour to get to that place. I have to get half an hour away from my house and my computer and my piles of books, just to clear a space. And then, it’s the most incredible thing: My brain starts working.

Brains will do wonderful things for you if you treat them right. They will offer you so many little gifts. It took four books for me to be able to make a living off writing. But once I got to a place where I could have a little more time to spend with my brain, I gave myself permission to indulge it, care for it, nurture it. There are ways to do this that are small, and not extravagant: I need exercise, I need good food, and I need people in my life who respect me and whom I respect.

Solitude is part of it too. Reading is a solitary experience, yet the way it works on your brain and your soul is that you feel comfort, and you feel like you’ve engaged and met with someone. It’s been like that for me as long as I remember. When I was a kid, I loved Greek mythology—especially D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, which is glorious for children because it’s illustrated. I was raised Jewish, but you’re not quite in the Judeo-Christian realm yet when you’re 4, and while part of you thinks the Greek myths are cool stories, another part is like, Is this real? I used to think the Greek gods lived in the sky, because they’re always depicted out there in the clouds somewhere. My mother tells a story where I would be walking home from school, and the neighbor would say, “Oh, I saw your daughter talking to herself again.” I was talking to the characters that I had read about, who were there in the sky.

In a way, my adult life as a novelist isn’t all that different. We’re taught to shut out those moments of purity, and creativity, and feeling like these other worlds are real—unless you’re lucky enough to be given a path where someone says, Here, take this creative-writing class, or Here, read these books, or It’s not weird to be this way. I feel so lucky that I had parents who encouraged me, and that I was given the opportunity to talk to the sky every day.

There’s a line in my book about how some people are born lonely. They just spend their entire lives lonely, even if they’re surrounded by people. I think that’s a very writerly thing, to be inherently lonely. If you can wrestle it into a positive, that’s the goal. It’s not the same thing as being a loner. Community is incredibly important—I love the writing community, and the reading community, so much. But of all of that, I think I might love my brain the most.