How to Turn Real-Life Isolation Into Fiction

The third installment of Read Like a Writer, Recommended Reading's series on the craft of fiction

Lonely Toy

Welcome to Read Like a Writer, a new series that examines a different element of the craft of fiction writing in each installment, using examples from the Recommended Reading archives. Each month, the editors of Recommended Reading—Halimah Marcus, Brandon Taylor, and Erin Bartnett—will select a few stories that illustrate a specific technique, style, or writing challenge. 

Certain writers—childless, professional writers—will tell you that being in quarantine is not markedly different from their regular lives. They spend a lot of time alone, they will tell you. They go for walks, they think, they write. No matter your circumstances, whether you lead the “ideal” writer’s life or one of mess and chaos, your writing must be done alone.

The particular isolation of writing has led many writers to concoct stories in which their protagonists are also isolated. In most of these stories, nothing happens, unless you count the protagonist thinking as something happening. (I usually don’t, but these three stories prove that exceptions exist.) Stories with a solitary character can be, but aren’t necessarily, about the condition of loneliness. With the caveat that not everyone who is alone is lonely, and a lonely person can be surrounded by people, the reason these stories are particularly challenging to pull off is that aloneness and loneliness lend themselves to static stories of futile longing. Interactions, on the other hand, lead to plot. Like all of us in our new lives, the characters in these stories have nowhere to go.

At a time when interactions with other people seem like a distant memory, we look at three examples of short stories from the Recommended Reading archives about characters in isolation. In each, there is only one character who is physically present. Pets are permitted, and other characters are allowed to call or radio in, but they cannot interact with the protagonist in person except in memories or flashbacks, even if they remain six feet away.

TV aquarium

Watching Mysteries with My Mother” by Ben Marcus

This story takes the form of an extended intrusive thought regarding the death of the narrator’s mother. Even as he rationalizes away the possibility that she might die, he finds steadily more reasons that suggest that she will die, setting up the tension of the story that takes place quite literally only in his head. Writers are warned against stories where all a character does is sit and think, stories where there isn’t a present thread of action because stories this kind often lack obvious and urgent emotional stakes. But here Marcus clearly illustrates the tense, swirling eddy of anxiety and neurosis that plague us when we are alone with our thoughts. It’s an eerie story to revisit, and I find myself thinking of my own intrusive thoughts and all of the little rationalizations I erect against my anxiety even as I knock them over with still greater worry. The key to Marcus’s story is the escalating intensity and absurdity of the intrusive thought, the subtle echoes and repetitions that build up like an involuntary tic. It’s a dazzling display of the interior narration, as gripping and compelling as any exploding building. – BT

The Adventure of the Space Traveler” by Seth Fried

One way to get around nothing happening in a story with only one character is to make the inciting event—the event that isolates that character in the first place—as eventful as possible. Fried wastes no time doing this, thoroughly isolating his protagonist in the first sentence:

“While repairing a communications dish outside the space station Triumph I, Arnold Barington inadvertently fired his rivet gun into a tank of pressurized gas. In the resulting explosion, Barington was thrown out like a dart into the vacuum of space at roughly five thousand feet per second.” 

For good measure, Fried also breaks Barington’s radio. 

The story is off to an exciting start, but the reader knows that Barington will not survive. (He isn’t Sandra Bullock in Gravity.) Fried must employ methods other than suspense to keep the reader’s attention. He gives Barington a futuristic spacesuit that will keep him alive for 5.6 years and Barington holds out hope that this will give him enough time to be rescued. Just like that there is tension—the tension between Barington’s hope and our discomfort—even if there isn’t suspense. 

Next, Fried solves the problem of plot with the ingenuity Barington wishes he had, bringing to life a mix of Barington’s imaginings and regrets. The infinite void of deep space functions as a darkened theater, the visor of Barington’s own helmet is the screen, where his regrets play out as if they are happening in real time. A similar character might have the same thoughts when facing a more conventional death, but that story would have felt conventional, where this one is possessed by thrilling inertia. – HM

The Duchess of Albany” by Christine Schutt

I’ve been thinking a lot about this line in Maggie Nelson’s Bluets: “It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem.” For the protagonist of Chrstine Shutt’s story, solitude was what she and her husband practiced in their large home with many windows and their rich, ever-demanding garden. (The protagonist is unnamed, so I will call her “the gardener.”) Dignified and dreamy, the gardener is, as Diane Williams writes in her introduction to the story, “an older woman in extremis.” The problem Schutt introduces in the first sentence—the problem that turns solitude into loneliness—is death. The gardener’s husband, Owen, has died. The garden, filled with his ashes, must still be kept alive. Now, her only companion is their old, dust rag of a dog named Pink, who is always relieving himself in the wrong places. She endures the occasional call from her twin daughters, who prattle on about her vodka habit. 

Schutt creates tension in the story by intermingling the gardener’s memories of her life with Owen with her actions in the present. Often, the only signpost we have to distinguish between memory and contemporary action, is Owen’s presence in the event. For another writer, this kind of story might prove impossible to pull off. But Christine Schutt’s prose is so precise and wry, and the gardener’s interiority so intimately drawn, that you keep reading just to get closer to this woman who wants nothing to do with you. 

By the end of “Duchess of Albany” Christine Schutt shows us that while the experience of losing a beloved is lonely, one is never completely alone in loss. Those memories, for a time at least, are still filled with so much life. Christine Schutt finds dignity there. – EB

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