“I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”
NATURAL BORN SOCIAL. Some people have a natural capacity for sociability. They are easy with small talk, know how to strike the right balance between concern and respecting the others’ private space, circulate naturally and effortlessly at cocktail parties—and, in sum, seem to be entirely comfortable with people. And they are easy to be around. In turn, they like to be with people—need people, in fact—so they join clubs and organizations, receive and give awards—and generally lubricate the human condition. They think of themselves as “people people” and they are.
Mind you, their souls might be as black as pitch and they might be secret sociopaths, but I’m not talking about integrity here—I’m talking about sociability.
MADE, NOT BORN. Where others are concerned, their social skills are doubtless acquired—sometimes after much internal turmoil—and sometimes you can see the joins and feel their tension—but the end result is much the same (and all the more admirable for the effort involved).
ADMIRATION AND MILD ENVY. I admire people with such attributes—and am, I suppose, mildly envious of them. Interpersonal skills are extraordinarily important—and they help the world go around without the need to main and kill each other (both figuratively and literally) more than we do.
Personally, I’m not without social skills—though, given my upbringing, I am somewhat surprised that I have become as adept as I have. In fact, I am not infrequently called charismatic—and regularly described as being sympatico (which I am). However, despite being particularly empathetic—and it is entirely genuine--the paradox is that, I crave solitude for much of the time—and I rarely join clubs or anything similar. Worse— let me confess—I don’t feel the need for people in the way the naturally social do (or, at least, I don’t feel the need to be reassured by their physical presence at all times). That qualification is important—because it doesn’t mean I don’t like people. But, I’ll come to that in a moment.
WHY AREN’T I MORE SOCIAL? The reasons why I’m not innately social are no mystery. Home was an emotional mine field where the mines exploded on a regular basis—sometimes multiple times a day—and where, when I was small, I was subjected to a truly staggering amount of physical and mental abuse. In fact, at one stage I was beaten every day—sometimes multiple times—for over a year. My assailant was my mother, a woman who was then much given to outbursts of rage and violence—and someone who made no attempt at all to get a grip on her emotions. In fact, charismatic though she was, she was pretty terrifying to be around. You never knew when she would lash out—and physically, when she was young, she was a strong woman. When you were slapped across the face, it wasn’t a token of disapproval. It was a blow, you staggered from it, and it hurt. At other times, she used a stick—and that was worse still.
My first boarding school was no better. I was sent there far too young (I was five in a place where the others were eight plus—and inevitably bigger and stronger). That left me the smallest boy in the school, so I was a natural victim. Bullying was the norm—so I ended up as a punching-bag for three years.
Eventually, I was sent to school in England, experienced a growth burst, found myself with boys of my own age for a change, found I could more than hold my own, taught myself unarmed combat out of a book—and became very dangerous for a while until I nearly killed someone by hitting them very hard just once. It wasn’t so much the strength of the blow but where I hit them that mattered. That shook me profoundly; and thereafter I have tried to avoid violence where possible—although I have still been in a substantial number of fights by today’s standards. As for combat, that’s when social skills—at least in relation to the enemy—become a little irrelevant, and you do what’s necessary, as calmly as possibly, and as expeditiously as you can. Afterwards, the reaction sets in.
AND SO I BECAME A SOLITARY MAN? MAYBE NOT. Now, you might think from all this, that I’ve ended up bitter and twisted and value solitude because I can’t stand people. Not so. Fortunately, I’m widely read, intelligent and—as I have said—empathetic, so I have been able to turn my troubled upbringing to advantage. It took me some time, but essentially I’ve been able to channel the energy generated by all that turmoil into creativity—and writing, let me say, is about as effective a therapeutic activity as you are likely to encounter.
Forget shrinks! Forget meds (the combination will cost you an arm and a leg and will only dull your mind). Go try and write really well—and you’ll be far too preoccupied with that Herculaean task to worry about your earlier traumas. Let me tell you, writing is tough, damnably difficult,and demands everything you have (and any idea you can steal). And the easier and more compelling it is to read, the harder it is to do.
ONE REMARKABLE CHAMPION. In my case, I was helped enormously during my earlier years by my grandmother, Vida Lentaigne. They say you only need one person to support you through the most difficult of times—and, in my case, I found it to be true. When she died, part of me died too.
LOVE IS A VERY NUTTY THING. In addition I fell in love (a condition of temporary insanity or delirium) which nearly rivals writing as an emotional distraction and which—if you are with the right woman (or partner)—includes a great deal of lovemaking as a rather wonderful bonus. In truth, it is hard to feel too bad about the world when you are lying with the woman you love in your arms after you have engaged in the most intimate of activities—hopefully for several hours. I’m a great believer in long, slow, sex—and in the exquisite pleasure of giving pleasure—and with the prospect of more after you have slept a little. In fact, sometimes I wonder why lovers every leave bed. Work seems something of a let-down under such circumstances (though I might make an exception for writing).
LOVE HEALS ALL (THOUGH IT HURTS TOO). Well, such has been my experience each time I have been in love—which has been enough times to keep life interesting—but not so often as to stop it being special. Sex alone can be mind-blowing—no double pun intended—but lovemaking, when you are in love, is a special kind of madness, and is in a league of its own. Sadly, in my case, the love of my life died. When I heard the news I couldn’t speak for nearly a day. I was literally struck dumb. It is the only time in my life that such has ever happened to me.
BUT WHY SOLITUDE? Now let me segue to the point of all this—which is to explain about my need for solitude. It is a requirement based on what I do. It has little to do with how I feel about people—except in a positive way—but a great deal to do with my calling. I am a writer. That is my calling and my passion. But, stated simply, I can’t write when people are around because they/you are too distracting. It’s not that I want to escape them (though it depends on the people). It is more more that people have social needs—which I’m happy to indulge—but which are incompatible with a discipline which requires total focus.
Much the same rationale applies to thinking. If I want to think something through, it’s frequently helpful to have a walk and mull over the issue. But, if I am walking with someone else, I tend to think about them first.
The third factor is that I do a great deal of reading—and that in itself is primarily a solitary occupation (or it is if you want to focus). Reading with a lover in bed is all very well, but it is my experience that the mind tends to gravitate to more physical activities. Or even if your mind doesn’t, some other part of you does.
BUT WHY DON’T I GO NUTS FROM LONELINESS WHEN THE DAY’S WORK IS DONE? But that still doesn’t explain why I don’t go stark raving nuts in the evenings when I’m alone—and without a TV.
I seem to have cornered myself here—though maybe not. The truth is that I am fairly self contained—with an active mind and a heavy (self-imposed) work-load—and content with my own company providing I know that I have the option to be social. That doesn’t mean I have to see someone in the flesh—though that is always preferable—but I certainly do need to talk to my friends regularly—and do, and at great length. I also maintain a considerable correspondence (my e-mails tend to be long and much more akin to old-fashioned letters). And my life is much the richer for it.
You get to know yourself a little better over time—and what I have discovered is that, if anything, I think about my friends too much. which means, in turn, that if I have to focus to the extent I do, I need all the discipline I can muster.
I’m still not a joiner. That may change over time.. I feel the need to reach out and give back more as I get older, but haven’t yet found a format that will fit my current circumstances.
In fact, I’m fascinated by people and love nothing more than dinner with friends, or having the kind of long conversation where you really get to know someone—or which advances your friendship. I’m not very good at small talk, care little about sports—and I can’t tell a joke worth a damn—but I’m witty, widely read, travelled and have an original mind—which makes me what many people call “an interesting man.” I have also had so many adventures that I am rarely short of an insight, a perspective, or an anecdote. Am I charming? That’s not really for me to say—though I know I can be. When I speak publicly—which I love to do—I can engage, entertain, and draw out an audience.
MOST SOCIAL WHEN RESEARCHING. I’m at my most social when I’m researching a book because then I tend to travel and meet people virtually all the time—and I do a great deal of interviewing. There I tend to engage totally with whoever I’m interviewing because there a few more intense and enjoyable experiences than the meeting of two minds (if you exclude the joining of two bodies). I’m also normally able to get people to talk—partly because they can sense genuine interest, and I do my homework. The more you know about a subject, the more people will tell you—if they warm to you. It isn’t essential to have a warm personality if you are a writer—but it is highly desirable if you work the way I do (because both my fiction and non-fiction are inspired by real people and personal experience).
Fortunately, I’m blessed with one. It was well hidden when I was young and struggling to overcome my problematic childhood, but I have mellowed over the years and have been helped profoundly by so many people of caliber that I have to wonder why the world is in the state it’s in. My conclusion, where the U.S. is concerned, is that far too many mediocrities are selected by the ultra rich to do their bidding that people of worth scarcely a chance. Beyond that, since the entire system is money based, people of integrity tend to steer clear of it. It’s a tragedy because for democracy to work, we need good people in it—and they are out there. They are just not in politics.
The reality is that my love of writing stems from my interest in people—not a rejection at all. That said, I still need solitude while I’m writing—and I have to write. That apart, I’m all yours.
THE FUTURE? Will I live with a partner again? I was unsure about that for a while. Now I’m not. I enjoy and respect women—and though I’m passionate about my writing—I feel the need for that special kind of intimacy which comes from being with a lover. Besides, as you can probably tell from my writing—I’m a romantic. Certainly, I have had a couple of unhappy relationships—Who hasn’t?—but, on balance I have been exceedingly fortunate. I also believe that it’s better to have loved and parted than to miss an intimate relationship. I also have the feeling that women are smarter than us males—and it’s a wise person who associates with people who are smarter than oneself.
So my answer is unambivalent—yes I will.
How do I know? I’m not sure anyone knows anything when it comes to relationships. Call it author’s intuition!
A MOVABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway—one of my favorite books. And yes, the photo at the top of this piece is of Hemingway.