States of Solitude: On Natalie Eve Garrett’s “The Lonely Stories”

By Charlotte HechtJune 16, 2022

States of Solitude: On Natalie Eve Garrett’s “The Lonely Stories”

The Lonely Stories: 22 Celebrated Writers on the Joys & Struggles of Being Alone by Natalie Eve Garrett

“WHAT IF WE joined our loneliness?” Natalie Eve Garrett asks in her introduction to The Lonely Stories, a collection of 22 essays about being alone. “What if,” she continues, echoing a line by the poet Ross Gay, “what if that is joy?” In the spring of 2022, as the pandemic enters its third year and an entire world has become accustomed to socially mandated isolation, the idea that essays on being alone can offer a balm for the lonely reader is compelling and timely. When we combine our aloneness, The Lonely Stories suggests, there is comfort to be found in the resonances.

I am skeptical at first that it might all be too much — the dead-on timeliness of a book of personal essays about loneliness published during a pandemic, the late-night radio host tone in the final line of Garrett’s introduction: “If you’re feeling lonely or if you’ve ever felt unseen, if you’re emboldened by solitude or secretly longing for it: welcome.” It’s almost enough to make me put the book down; I’m not sure I’m looking for this type of group therapy via personal essay. I learned to love the genre of the personal essay just out of college, during a lonely year in a moth-infested apartment in Western Massachusetts. I was drawn (and still am) to the way that writing about self could suddenly be about something much bigger, and the reassuring experience of finding my own life reflected in someone else’s story. I am wary, though, of the understandable critique that is often leveled at the personal essay: its tendency to become an on-the-page confessional, propped up by navel-gazing and vague emotion-driven imagery. Fortunately, the essays compiled in The Lonely Stories largely avoid this pitfall.

The best essays here demonstrate that states of solitude are never just that — they are influenced by history, society, culture, politics. As Leslie Jamison has written (in her introduction to The Best American Essays 2017), the essay can “take the political and make it something that lives in a body.” And so, yes, in The Lonely Stories, the personal is political. Yiyun Li, Dina Nayeri, and Jean Kwok write about the loneliness of immigration — the loss of language, of home, the difficulties of starting again in a new country. Imani Perry, Claire Dederer, and Aja Gabel reflect on being alone in a body that no longer aligns with society’s expectations, the particular solitude that comes with chronic illness, miscarriage, or getting sober. While the book was conceived before the pandemic began, many of the essays were written in the middle of it. Emily Raboteau describes the slow exodus of families from her Manhattan apartment building during the first wave of COVID-19 in New York, when death tolls were mounting exponentially and refrigerated trucks lined the streets outside of too-full hospital morgues. Jesmyn Ward, in a stunning piece first published in Vanity Fair, writes about the death of her husband to a mysterious respiratory illness in early 2020, and grieving this loss in the midst of mass death, isolation, and fear during a summer of rage and the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, sparked by the murder of George Floyd. To be alone in these times is weighted. But to be together is as well: like the act of witnessing Ward perceives in the rivers of bodies clogging major highways across the globe, chanting I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, pelleted with rubber bullets and choking on tear gas, during a time when the very act of taking a breath in a crowd could be life-threatening.

The essays in The Lonely Stories are a far cry from the political acts of protesters in the street, but taken together, they are quietly powerful. A book of 22 essays will necessarily offer different things to each reader, and the diversity of stories, styles, and tones in this collection makes it a chameleon of sorts. It is the type of book you might keep on your shelf and pull down for a dose of humor, for meditations on loss, on love, on writing. During this reading, what struck me was that this is a collection by writers, for writers. As a young woman who likes to think of herself at the beginning of some type of writing career, and whose 20s have been characterized by a chronic state of being alone, I couldn’t help but pick up on another prominent theme that is woven throughout many of the essays: what it means to be a woman who writes, and what it means to be a woman who is alone. These, too, are politically weighted acts. Garrett notes in her introduction that the majority of writers represented in The Lonely Stories identify as women and that in a book of essays about being alone, this is not surprising. Society levels expectations of care, companionship, and family on women. The woman who is alone, whether by choice or circumstance, is an oddity, an outcast, has failed in some fundamental way.

In a moving and funny essay from the collection, Amy Shearn recounts the story of Lillian Alling, who in 1926 walked from New York City to Siberia. Shearn, lonely in her marriage, is inspired by Lillian’s long walk, the fact that she just gets up and goes. Shearn writes about how three years after Lillian left New York, she crossed paths, on the Yukon River, with an anthropologist, who recorded his impressions of the wild, walking woman: “Everybody speculates about her strange proceedings,” he wrote, “but those who spoke to her say she is not insane. ‘Writes novels,’ or ‘perhaps a criminal.’” LOL, I scribbled in the margin. I told my dad on the phone about this, and the certain stigma that follows women who are alone. “Oh, but it’s not like that anymore,” he responded. True, we may not be Lillian Alling alone on the Yukon River in 1929, perhaps criminally or novelistically insane in the eyes of a male anthropologist, but it is, in fact, like that.

In her contribution, Maggie Shipstead writes about the choice she’s often made to be alone — to write, to travel, to work — and the way that she’s become comfortable with loneliness. She wonders if this “heightened resistance to loneliness might be higher than I realize. I’m in the phase of life when there are a lot of weddings, a lot of first babies, when, to many, the absence of these things appears troublesome, even pitiable.” For women who, as Helena Fitzgerald writes in her essay, “are pushed out of childhood so quickly, shoved without ceremony into the heavy social obligations of adulthood,” there is a particular tension in finding the space necessary to do creative work. There seems to be a tacit agreement that this solitude is a prerequisite to creating art, reaching into the depths of yourself to find the flow state, embracing selfishness and shutting out the world that would have you distracted, engaged in duties. To have the resources to walk away, to be alone to think and write, to be able to make that choice at all is a massive privilege. But it’s a bit of a paradox, Fitzgerald writes, as the “privilege offered by extended periods of time alone,” is “a privilege that few people, women in particular, are lucky enough to access,” and when they do, it is “one we are often told represents a failure.” Tropes of the power-hungry, coldhearted career woman, the old maid, be damned, Fitzgerald tells us: “Living alone is a reminder that we can make our bodies anti-social, hoarding our selfishness and our silence.”

In the essay that opens the volume, Megan Giddings echoes this sentiment: “I tell women to go to the movies alone because there’s something I think contemporary women need at the beginning of their art lives maybe almost as much as money: that feeling of freedom, where you don’t have to consider other people or their needs.” She notes that women are “conditioned to be people pleasers,” to take care of the problems, the family, to do the small tasks that keep the world going, capital flowing. But this comes at the expense of creativity. “I tell women to do these things for themselves,” she continues, “because worrying so much about other people can smother the risk-taking part of your brain that writing needs.” The risk-taking part of your brain that writing needs — I underlined that. And as I read, observations like this piled up, the words fueling a chorus. I underlined and underlined. I texted photos of entire pages of these essays to my female friends. They hearted the messages and texted back YES.

Recently, during a lonely year of my life, I have made a new friend. On weekday mornings, she and I take long uphill runs to see the sunrise from the rocky ridge that overlooks our city. The road up has been icy in early spring, so we go slow, and we talk — about how it’s hard to be in graduate school and have a life, about past relationships and why they ended, about whether we should just give up on it all and move to Vermont to ski all day. We joke about hitting 30 and being forever stuck in the grind of academia with only cats to keep us company. We are afraid of being alone, and that this might be an unavoidable side effect of ambition, of constantly moving for the best school, the most prestigious position, the volatility of the academic job market. We drop the heavy topics like ribbons behind us as we make our way up and down the six-mile route. When I get home and shower, the fresh morning sun filters into my bathroom. I feel content and emptied out in the way that happens when you run long distances and share your worries with someone else.

This type of talking together about being alone is the conceit of The Lonely Stories. Often, I can’t make up my mind about the power of stories, whether writing can make real and measurable impact off the page. To say that stories do this seems an easy reassurance for those of us who stay inside and write, to help ourselves feel better about what can seem a selfish pursuit in a world that is warming up too quickly, that is wracked by inequality and war. I was quick to dismiss The Lonely Stories as too feel-good, too earnest in its belief in writing and reading. Yet, there is a tangible impact. This is what I mean by the book’s quiet power: I’m tucking these words in my pocket for next time I need them, putting them on Post-it notes over my desk. I’ll text my friends and tell them to spend an evening at the movies alone or to walk long distances instead of swiping through dating apps. I’ll tell my running friend about this book on the way up the ridge next week. Maybe that is enough.


Charlotte Hecht is a writer and interdisciplinary scholar of visual culture, the built environment, and landscape. She is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Yale University.

LARB Contributor

Charlotte Hecht is a writer and interdisciplinary scholar of visual culture, the built environment, and landscape. She is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Yale University.


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