The Loneliness of the Modern Writer


Last Friday, Ruth Ann Stewart passed away.  There will be obituaries and memorials – as there should be, given her robust accomplishments and her outsized personality.  Some will celebrate her time as a Schomburg Librarian, while others will herald her work in arts policy, or her own career as an author.

I met Ruth Ann for the very first time at the door of an upper West Side apartment, a lemon tart and a Starbucks coffee in my hands.  It was the summer of 2000, and there were crises everywhere.  I’d just failed to get an academic job, and, trying to make something from nothing, I’d signed on to teach two sections of World History I – a subject far, far removed from my own expertise – at a local college.  I’d been drawn to that apartment, and away from my post-job-market blues, to help my mentor (the charming David Levering Lewis) flesh out the endnotes of the second volume of his biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, a sequel to a Pulitzer Prize-winning first volume.

So that is how Ruth Ann and I were introduced – as comrades supporting the completion of the epic, then-unfinished “life” of the twentieth century’s most important public intellectual.  I, an unpublished adjunct worker with an uncertain future; she, the accomplished wife of a distinguished writer on the verge of an extraordinary achievement.

Given the stakes – and given the way we think about high-profile writing – one might have expected that I’d be urged to keep silent, tucked away in a corner, like a sad scrivener.

Instead, every morning Ruth Ann and David would greet me at the door.  Clutching my coffee, I’d make my way to the long table, open up my laptop, and start with the day’s labor – a deciphering of the famous author’s characteristic notation style.  And Ruth Ann would sit nearby, line-editing the latest page of prose, which had been generated by David in the home office just down the hall.  We’d make chit-chat.  Every few minutes, she would get up and share her corrections with the writer-of-the-moment, offered in the form of a formal, prescriptive laundry list.  And then, after a few small repairs, David would come back out to read some revisions aloud.  At lunchtime, she would order up a chicken from Gabriella’s – Peruvian, with tostones and avocado salad – and the three of us would sit together and eat like kings. And then we would get back to work. The room crackled with energy.  And with conversation.

The deadline loomed  Our circle of helpers grew.  A handful of other former and then-current graduate students joined us. A set of former Schomburg librarians, too.  That crackling continued – and grew louder.

I had always imagined writing to be an isolating thing, as if every writer was a single, hunched-over figure alone in a room, hammering out prose like a lonely blacksmith.  Indeed, I’d drafted my first book in an attic with low ceilings.  This was the necessary loneliness, as it were, of the modern writer.

There, in that apartment, I learned that there was another way to do it.

Ruth Ann transformed writing into a social affair, a swirling, orchestrated thing with a full cast.  She brought us all together, turned on the music, and then kept us moving with a combination of laughter, intensity, and astonishingly good food. Ex-librarians. Adjuncts. Graduate students. Prize-winning historians.  More often than not, it felt like we were in a broadway musical.

There was – and still is – something special about her management of that apartment.  For a few weeks, she turned a small, shared living space into a literary salon. We talked about books, and art, and politics, and culture.  The magic rippled outward.  At night, I revised my own book, working through issues and questions that had emerged in the day’s labor.  Thinking about things we’d all talked about at the long table.  During the day, we’d talk about our own drafts, ideas, and plot points.  Real friendships were forged in that apartment – friendships that I treasure (and honor) today.

Loneliness is the hallmark of writing, we are told.  Chang Rae Lee writes in shorts and takes exercise breaks, but writes alone. Amy Tan writes alone in a spare, spare room, filled with the photographs of lost family members.  James McBride has a small apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, an isolated refuge of sorts.  Tracy Chevalier waits for her son to leave for school, and then sets out to write 1,000 words a day.  Maya Angelou once said that she always loved to write in a hotel room, where all of the paintings had been removed, because she needed to be detached from the quotidian – and the human – to craft a poem or a plot.  She didn’t even let the maids in to change the bed linens.

This need for solitude worked for Angelou (and for Tan and Lee and Chevalier and McBride), but it could never work for me. Sure, often, I write alone.  But usually, I’ve got my people with me. Give me a lifetime of prose crafted across a table from a dear friend, the grease from the chicken still on our fingertips, the laughter from the last joke still echoing, a little music in the background. Give me speakers not headphones. And give me a playlist that works for everyone. I’ll take that – if I have a choice – instead of solitude.

That summertime stretch was a lucky preface, drafted by Ruth Ann, to a grim, year-long story of underpaid, itinerancy.  To remember it that way, though, would be wrong.  So much of what gets expressed these days about the life of the mind is about interest groups, about cleavages that cannot be bridged, that reflect structurally determined positions. Adjuncts. Grad students. Faculty.  Not allies, enemies. Not partners, but opposed social factions.  If I sometimes resist seeing the world of higher education as a battlefield of class warfare, it is, in part, because I have seen this work differently, better, in a less polarized context, one far less institutionally determined, one that was about writing, about the age-old effort to say, in black and white, what we really mean, to compel attention, to persuade and even to inspire.  And I adamantly refuse to surrender that memory.

That was almost a lifetime ago. The second volume of W.E.B. Du Bois came out, and won  a second Pulitzer for David.  The adjuncting came to an end.  Ruth Ann never stopped working the room, though.  When I began work on a recent book, she kept pushing me to start it, to change it, to finish it, to talk about it, to share some of it.  She proofread parts of the manuscript, and we talked about those parts for hours.  She shared her own childhood memories on the subject, and she laughed hard when I put them in the book. In her final months, after the book had been released, she pulled together a loud, raucous book party for me, a perfect expression of her faith in networking, in collaboration, in simple conversation, in friendship, built around cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.

I love her – and miss her.  For a long, long time, I will remember her piercing gaze, her sharp laugh, and her Chicago charm, which I found immobilizing, transfixing, and endearing.  Most of all, though, I’ll remember that apartment salon.  With every rich, juicy, unpredictable creative, socially-produced paragraph, I’ll remember Ruth Ann Stewart.  And that amazing Peruvian chicken.  We don’t have to be alone, I now know, to write well.


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