Monday, March 19, 2007

Flying Solo

(This essay was originally written several years ago for Futures magazine, and it garnered me a Pushcart Literary I thought I'd share to see if it resonates with you writers out there.)

Humans are supposed to be herd animals, creatures of the pack. Even only children like myself are raised in a family setting. We attend school in groups and if you’re a young female, you learn to go to the bathroom in groups. We have our cliques, our club memberships, our teams and our carpools.

Then a few strange ones suddenly veer off the crowded path, find their trembling wings and start flying solo. As writers. As one-woman private investigative agencies.

Ah, you say. Now I know where she’s going with this. Good, if you do. If you don’t, sit back, grab a beer and get ready for some free-fall soul searching.

Has it yet occurred to you that one of the reasons you’re a writer is that you’re very comfortable being alone?

Not every one can do this. Most people -- and I like e.e. cummings’ phraseology on this -- “Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone.” If you don’t believe me try going to any well-populated social gathering. A clearance sale at K-Mart will do. Tell the multitudes that you’re a writer and once they finishing ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the fame they associate with the profession, they will inevitably ask how you do it. How do you sit there, hands on the keyboard, staring at a blank computer screen, or blank piece of paper, and get your ideas. Your characters. Your action. All by yourself.

And that’s the kicker. All by yourself. No boss breathing down your neck. No supervisor clucking her tongue at your tardiness. No taskmaster with a whip, other than your own self.
And then you try to explain that you’re really not alone, that there are about a hundred or so people who live inside your head, all with stories to tell, all clamoring for your attention.

And these people, these nice employed-in-big-nine-to-five-offices people began to back away from you. Slowly.

Been there?

Fifteen years ago when I started my investigative agency I figured I’d have two or three others on staff. All male. Reverse chauvinism. And they had to be good looking (they all were). But I found, and it wasn’t due to the distraction of being surrounded by hunks, that I got just as much work accomplished by myself.

So for the last few years I worked as I investigator I was flying solo, and it may come as no surprise to you writers that the majority of private investigators do the same.

We have our heads full of people, too. Slimy people, wacky people, tricky people, lost people.
I worked a lot of cases by marching these people out onto my mind’s stage and running them through their paces. I tripped up slime because in my mind I wore their skins. I found the lost because in my mind I wore their walking shoes. I out-thought the con artists because in my mind we donned the same thinking caps.

My days often went like this: I’d sit in the attorney’s office after delivering my report and he’d look at me from across his polished mahogany desk, praising my work.

“So. How many investigators did you put on this guy’s tail?” While he questioned me I knew that outside his office door are no less than two secretaries, a receptionist and four junior partners in his law firm.

“None. Just me,” I ‘d tell him.

“Just you?” he’d asked, as if being only five feet tall even further reduces my abilities.

“Yeah. Just me.”

“Then how did you figure out so quickly what this guy was up to?” The attorney knew he couldn’t even produce a simple transmittal letter without getting at least three other people involved.

“Easy,” I’d tell him. “Around two in the morning, after I’ve beaten the case file and all the accumulated data to death, I pour myself a goblet of Opus One. Then I pace the kitchen in the dark and become your adversary. I think his thoughts, feel his fears, absorb his desperation.”

At this point the attorney would inevitably glance at his watch, make a remark about his busy day and full schedule of appointments, and if I wouldn’t mind showing myself out....?

Yeah, I think me, myself and I can handle that.

Gentle readers, gentle writers, you and I fly solo. There is something in our nature that requires us to pull away from the ‘madding crowd’ and hover, to observe and record.

But not in a crowd at the zoo or a class trip to the museum, where other fingers point out the sights and others opinions fill our ears. But on our own, either as the advance scout or the straggler. So we see what others would have trampled on, hear what others would have lost in the din.

We saw heroes in the stars long before anyone told us what the constellations were supposed to mean. And we still see castles in the clouds when most other people only see a seventy per cent chance of precipitation.

One of my greatest thrills when I had my private pilot’s license was to fly directly into any cloud castle I wanted to. It would blanket my small plane, obscuring the windows and then suddenly I was out the other side, and the whole horizon looked brighter, more vivid with color. Pilots called it cloud punching.

I think of that blankness sometimes when I sit and stare at the white screen on my computer, knowing the words that I type suddenly make it come alive with color. With voices. With characters.

Which brings me back to my original question. Has it yet occurred to you that one of the reasons you are a writer is that you are very comfortable being alone?

Now do you know why?

Happy cloud punching.

Namaste, ~Linnea


  1. Excellent column, Linnea.

    Reminds me of a school-related trip I took in high school. There were six of us specially selected teens sent from our obscure little town in the middle of nowhere West of the Mississippi to tour Washington D.C. with hundreds of other teens from around the country. When we returned and our teacher talked about our experience, he said the most memorable thing about me was that I got lost three times. Vietnam War Memorial. Smithsonian Institute. Mount Vernon. I said nothing to nobody. I knew they wouldn't believe, even though I'm not a liar. And I sure as heck knew they wouldn't understand. The fact is I did not get lost. I knew exactly where I was. Alone. Learning the really interesting stuff they didn't in the middle of the herd competing for dominance.

  2. Linnea, you are brilliant. You are so brilliant, you are scary. No, I mean really. Yeah, I know I'm laying in on a little thick, but allow me a moment to get over my awe of your brilliance. ;)

    I do think this is actually true of readers as well as writers, more than people realize. Ah, to be alone with that story unfolding in one's mind, told my a master storyteller.

  3. oh, bev, you crack me up! ;) But, it's true that being swept up in a great story is one of the best things about being human.

    Hey, Linnea, I have a question and I didn't want to bother you with an email since you usually pop in here anyway. In one of your articles, you mentioned Bantan didn't want GAMES to be part of a series. Can you say why?


  4. Kimber an

    I note that Linnea has answered your question about GAMES being part of a series.

    Actually, Linnea probably can't answer -- nor could her editor.

    The "reason" is "the market" -- whatever stats the computer just flashed in the marketing people's faces is what guides the WAY a property is marketed. What just succeeded gets copied.

    It used to be that editors made those decisions -- today it's the marketing department (a committee, not a person) that makes the ultimate decision.

    It has nothing to do with anything under the writer's control.

    Although right now that's not true in e-books -- it will be as "marketing" becomes the objective.

    I should talk about all that stuff at length in my blog posts here, but I have another subject I actually wrote about on Sunday for this week's entry.

    Oddly enough (this is getting kinda scary!) once again what I found to discuss this week springboards off of what Linnea just posted.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  5. Thanks, Jacqueline! Actually, I always enjoy how you follow Linnea and play off each other. I've learned so much from you both!

    I've noticed marketing drives a lot of what happens, so your answer doesn't surprise me.

  6. Kimber,

    As JL said, I have posted in a couple places about GAMES OF COMMAND vs "The Alliance Command Series". The plain fact is, they said "write a stand-alone" and I didn't argue. I don't recollect the exact conversation but it went from Bantam to my agent to me and the upshot was a stand-alone was wanted.

    I'm sure a dozen factors came into play, most of which were marketing.


    ps: a general note to all - I'm switching web hosts on my site so my site and email may go away for 24-72 hours, I've been told. FYI. The change should be this week.

  7. Well, gee, Bev, not sure what I did to warrant that praise but you have me all aflutter! :-) ~Linnea

  8. Well, you know how it goes, it just sounded so great when I read it first thing this morning. Give me a couple of days and it might not sound as good.


    Nah, I'll probably still think it was brilliant. ;) It was good because I don't believe that people give nearly as much credit to independent thinking in today's "socially oriented" environment. It's great, but there's also something great about being able to be alone with one's own thoughts at times.

    And not having them freak you out, you know. :D

  9. Anonymous7:43 PM EDT

    Linnea wrote: "No taskmaster with a whip ..."

    Now Linnea, I'm not sure you can make that claim. I've been flicking that virtual whip for quite some time now ... and so have the rest of your loyal - but outspoken and shamelessly greedy - readership, as we clamor for moremoremore of your brilliance. And we want it __Now__ please ;-)

    ... or have we been too subtle?


  10. Absolutely, lw! When we find a damn good storyteller like Linnea, we've got to make sure she stays on track. Begging, chocolate-bribery, virtual whips, whatever it takes. We need them!

    So, Linnea, don't let us down! Crrrack! That goes for Susan Grant and the whole lot of you too.

    It's hard, irritating work to weed through all the junk out there to find new ones.

  11. Anonymous9:02 PM EDT

    Amen, sister! I can't imagine a more profound truism about writers. Your observations amaze me because they're so right on, and so revealing for me on a personal level. In spite of my closeness to my parents and sibs I've always been a loner. I underwent an amazing amount of ridicule and harassment by my peers all through grade school and beyond for no other apparent reason than that I was disinclined to join the herd. And I still do. Because I still am. It's astonishing how long it took me to figure out why I never seemed to fit in. And it took even longer to realize that there was nothing wrong with that. I've made a few cherished friends in my life, but I've never had more at any one time than I could count on one hand. Except for writers. I suspect this is the very thing that has made me feel so comfortable and unconditionally accepted when I'm around them, especially at conventions. Perhaps I'm speaking irony here, but in those instances I'm among a whole herd of loners like me. Who knew?(silly grin)