On Solitude and Commitment: a guest post by Jo-Ann Mapson

When I learned that J.D. Salinger had died, I didn’t quite know what to feel. His abhorrence to publishing was beyond my understanding. His desire for privacy seemed extreme, but who am I to talk? I happily spend many days inside my little pueblo house on the prairie without interacting with the world beyond. A week will go by that I venture no further than the mailbox or the back fence to tell the hounds to stop barking at coyotes. All that day I reflected on Salinger’s books—only four—and how reading the story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” changed my life. I was a depressed teenager when my then college-sophomore (bad boy) boyfriend gave me Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction.

Other than my teenage angst, Bananafish was my first concrete experience with Existentialism, and it blew the top of my head clear off. The feelings I felt did matter! I’d always had choices of how to deal with life, but now I had company. I loved Seymour Glass more than my boyfriend; the events that transpire in Bananafish were to me a reaction to everything I felt about the world just then. Love. The Vietnam War. What lay beyond high school? The fear that the adult world would scoop me up, deliver me into some office job that would slowly leaden my soul, and worst of all, I’d stop writing.

After reading Salinger, solitude no longer felt like a disorder, but rather a kind of holy necessity to my writing self. It might even be the place stories come from.

My writing was pretty terrible back then. But I made time for it. When I felt desperate, Salinger reminded me that one could actually make use of this dark stuff that seemed to fit nowhere. That tears in me could potentially foster a story that evoked tears in readers. That may be the moment I truly committed to writing.

Solitude fosters that bond. Unlike my painter husband who choreographs his life, I need quiet to work. Caller ID was invented just for me. When I do venture out into the quirky city in which I live, to museums, or Farmer’s Market, or dinner out, a funny thing happens. I’ll raise my hands to clap for Coleman Barks or finish the bean soup I ordered, and wham, I am blindsided with insight. My subconscious never leaves the desk. If I can’t hurry home, I write down whatever has come to me and champ at the bit until I can spend time with it. Alone. Such moments are the gold every writer longs to discover.

For the last fifty years the world has speculated on what Jerry Salinger was up to in Cornish, New Hampshire. Salinger sightings and tabloid-type gossip provided tawdry speculation, or suggested he was a Howard Hughes-style hermit, up to only weirdness. Me, I picture an office made comfortable over the years, a place he could go to every day to shut out the world in order to write the stories of the choices humans make, and the consequences that follow. One thing for sure, he was up to something that he could only do by himself.

I imagine finished manuscripts lined up on bookshelves. Twenty families beyond the Glass tribe that so captured me long ago. Imagine Holden Caulfield a grandfather. Maybe Salinger foresaw his writing compromised by becoming “the famous writer” of his generation. Maybe he only had four books in him. Maybe he chose to stay at home, waiting for more to show up. Whatever there is, and I bet it’s dazzling, I know how he did it, by himself, listening to his subconscious. And that I understand perfectly.

Jo-Ann Mapson is the author of nine novels, most recently The Owl and Moon Café. In Fall 2010, Bloomsbury USA and UK will publish her tenth novel, Solomon’s Oak. She teaches fiction in the UAA MFA Program in Creative Writing. She lives with her husband and five dogs in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and travels to Alaska every summer.

10 thoughts on “On Solitude and Commitment: a guest post by Jo-Ann Mapson”

  1. Jo-Ann,

    I know you probably didn't mean anything by it, but your phrase "only four books" gave me pause. Why do we keep measuring author importance by the volume of their output? It made me think of Norman Maclean and other, who "produced" very little and sometimes, very late in life. We all would like to have more work by our favorite writers — but perhaps the finiteness of their oeuvre is part of what makes makes it so special.

    If a book is a masterpiece and changed lives, who's counting?

    Thanks for a great post about the inspiration found in solitude and other writers. For me it happens in nature, away from even the minimalist trappings of a writer's studio (which can make note-taking a challenge at times) and often while in motion: walking or floating down a river.

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    A tribute to Salinger and a wonderful opportunity to hear Jo-Ann's voice – thanks for that!

  3. Nice post. As a child from a large family, I always enjoyed my alone-time even when I didn't understand that alone didn't have to mean lonely. It's where I find my inner creative space whether I'm in my office or on a trail.

    I've started carrying 3×5 cards for those moments of insight – they're a little less conspicuous than my notebook when I'm in a restaurant or theater and hold up better than a paper napkin.

    Micheal, interesting point. Harper Lee immediately came to mind. To Kill a Mockingbird is the only book I've read in its entirely more than once.

  4. As someone whose family never quite understood why I spent almost every evening after dinner alone in my room with records (I'm dating myself) and books, I loved this post. It made want to read the two books of Salinger's I haven't read and re-read the two I have.

  5. Thanks for your comment, Michael. What I meant to infer was that his body of work, so influential, so seemingly perfect, was small, and as a reader, I wanted more, more, more from him. But you're right, and I didn't intend it to sound disparaging. RIP, Jerry S.

  6. I understand — all my favorite authors died too young (the last being Ellen Meloy), and I often wonder what other miraculous books they would have come up with.

  7. Hello Jo-Ann:

    What a lovely post. It brought back good memories, for I also loved Salinger and used to pretend I was Franny Glass. What an incredible, complex yet simple world he created!

    As far as solitude, I hear you, girlfriend. A perfect day for me equals running with the dog, writing, reading in the bathtub and opening my mouth only to shovel in food.

    (Imagine J.D. on Facebook or, dear lord, tweeting. It would be the end of the world as we know it.)

    Cheers and hey to the pups and hubby,


  8. Two days before JD Salinger died, I read a short story in a collection entitled Bad Girls, by Ellen Sussman. Since then, the eulogies I've heard on Salinger have been tempered by the content of the story.

    The short story, "A Good Girl Goes Bad," by Joyce Maynard, describes the year Ms. Maynard lived with JD Salinger in a damaging relationship that ended her Yale education and her New York Times internship, and postponed what has become a successful writing career. (And it gets worse.) While some say a 19-year-old woman is an adult who is responsible for the path her life takes, I'm forced to draw other conclusions, considering Mr. Salinger was 34 years older than Ms. Maynard.

    Like the previous contributors, I admire Mr. Salinger for his unparalleled literary contributions, I lament his short publishing history, and I ponder his lifestyle choice. But, after reading Ms. Maynard's "A Good Girl Goes Bad," I cannot view Mr. Salinger's secluded lifestyle solely as a literary quest. Clearly, he lived on his own terms, but he sampled pieces of the world from afar and for his own gratification. Perhaps he sought solitude to listen to his subconscious, as is suggested here, but it was a troubled subconscious that became a source for pain as well as for literary masterpieces.

  9. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    "Exit Ghost" by Philip Roth is a recent novel — the last in the Zuckerman series — that explores many of these issues: a writer's right to privacy, the causes or consequence of slowed literary output, the effect of being "outed" by biographers and the entire notion of a writer's personal/family/sexual scandals. Recommended for Roth fans interested in these issues…

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