How to Be Alone – Sara Maitland.

What changed was that I got fascinated by silence; by what happens to the human spirit, to identity and personality when the talking stops, when you press the off-button, when you venture out into that enormous emptiness.

Sara Maitland: ‘My subconscious was cleverer than my conscious in choosing to live alone’

The author of How to Be Alone on the joys of solitude, Skyping and why having a dog isn’t really cheating…

How did you come to live the solitary life? Was it a sudden decision or did it evolve gradually?

I didn’t seek solitude, it sought me. It evolved gradually after my marriage broke down. I found myself living on my own in a small country village. At first I was miserable and cross. It took me between six months and a year before I noticed that I had become phenomenally happy. And this was about being alone not about being away from my husband. I found out, for instance, how much I liked being in my garden. My subconscious was cleverer than my conscious in choosing to live alone. The discovery about solitude was a surprise in waiting.

Yet isn’t writing a book such as How to Be Alone a way of communicating with others, of not being alone?

It is. Anthony Storr [author of Solitude: A Return to the Self] is right about companionship through writing and creative work. In my book about silence [A Book of Silence, 2008] I conclude that complete silence and writing are incompatible.

How would you distinguish between solitude and loneliness?

Solitude is a description of a fact: you are on your own. Loneliness is a negative emotional response to it. People think they will be lonely and that is the problem, the expectation is also now a cultural assumption.

If someone has not chosen to be alone, is bereaved or divorced, do you think they can make solitude feel like a choice?

It is possible. That has been my autobiography. They need more knowledge about it, to read about the lives of solitaries who have enjoyed it, to take it on, see what is good in it. Since I wrote about silence, many bereaved people have written asking: how do I do it? The largest groups of people living alone are women over 65 and separated men in their 40s. A lot of solitude is not chosen. It may come to any of us.

Do you ever feel lonely?

Very seldom because I have good friends and there are telephones and Skype. But broadband was down for a week over Christmas. I couldn’t Skype the kids and did find myself asking: why didn’t I go to my brother who had warmly invited me?

So what was Christmas like on your own in rural Galloway?

It was bliss. On Christmas Eve the tiny village five miles away has a nativity play. Young adults come home, it’s a very happy event. On the day itself I drank a little bit more than I should have done sitting in front of my fire. I had a long walk. It was lovely…

How much do you use the internet and social media?

Social media not at all. But when broadband went I realised how excessively I use it. Without it, I read more. I’m making a big patchwork quilt. I did more that week than in the past three months. It made me realise I have got to get this online thing under control. When I first came here I had it switched off three days a week but that has slipped.

You seem to lead a non-materialistic life. What three things would you most hate to lose from your shepherd’s cottage?

Last Christmas my son gave me a dragon hoodie bright green with pink spikes. I’d be sad to lose it. I’d hate to lose photos of my children. And I’d be seriously sad to lose Zoe, my border collie. I took her on because she got out of control in an urban community. She was seeking a wilder, freer life.

Yet in the book you suggest it’s cheating on the solitary life to have a dog when you walk…?

The pure soul probably doesn’t have a dog. I have a dog but no television.

You mention having suffered depression earlier in your life was this related to lack of solitude?

That is a correct reading, although I would not use it diagnostically. I’m deeply fond of my family but they put a high value on extroversion. I come from an enormous family and have spent a lot of time pretending I wasn’t introverted.

Yet deciding whether one is extrovert or introvert is not straightforward?

Everyone has a differing need for solitude. I feel we haven’t created space for children to find out what they need. I’ve never heard of being sent to your room as a reward. In my childhood I had a happy home being alone was thought weird. I’d like people to be offered solitude as an ordinary thing.

Does being alone teach children to be alone? Yes, just as talk is the teacher of talk.

You write: ‘Most of us have a dream of doing something in particular which we have never been able to find anyone to do with us. And the answer is simple really: do it yourself.‘ What dream have you realised by yourself?

The one thing I really don’t like doing by myself is changing a double duvet… But I went up Merrick on my own, the highest hill in the area a week after my mother died. A little voice kept saying: this is not safe, it is stupid. What happens if you break your ankle? What happens if you get lost? Doing it was a breakthrough. Another dream I am sad about. My brother and I used to sail a dinghy. He died and I wanted to sail alone. I went on a dingy course only to discover I’m not physically strong enough to right the dinghy were it to tip over.

How does love fit into the solitary life?

How much loving are people doing if they’re socialising 24/7? And if the loving is only to be loved, what is unselfish about that? The fact you’re on your own does not mean you are not loving.

Your book is part of a self-help series. What book has helped you most?

What an interesting question. Lots of stuff. Anything good. I have just been reading Alan Garner’s phenomenally brilliant Boneland and A Voyage for Madmen [by Peter Nichols], an account of the people who sailed in the 1968 solo round-the-world race. They had the same circumstances: ill-equipped boats, not enough money, plenty of anxiety. Yet different people had different responses to the same thing. People are not righter or wrong er, they’re different. I’ve struggled with this all my life and, God, it’s hard to grasp.

How to Be Alone

by Sara Maitland.

You have just started to read a book that claims, at least, to tell you how to be alone.


It is extremely easy to be alone; you do not need a book. Here are some suggestions:

Go into the bathroom; lock the door, take a shower. You are alone.

Get in your car and drive somewhere (or walk, jog, bicycle, even swim).You are alone.

Wake yourself in the middle of the night (you are of course completely and absolutely alone while you are asleep, even if you share your bed with someone else, but you are almost certainly not conscious of it, so let’s ignore that one for the moment); don’t turn your lights on; just sit in the dark. You are alone.

Now push it a bit. Think about doing something that you normally do in company go to the cinema or a restaurant, take a walk in the country or even a holiday abroad by yourself. Plan it out; the logistics are not difficult. You know how to do these things. You would be alone.

So what is the problem? Why are you reading this book?

And of course I do not know the answer. Not in your case, at least. But I can imagine some possible motives:

For some reason, good or bad, of which bereavement is perhaps the bitterest, your normal circle of not-aloneness has been broken up; you have to tackle unexpected isolation, you doubt your resources and are courageously trying to explore possible options. You will be a member of a fast-growing group, single-occupancy households in the UK have increased from 12 per cent of all households in 1961 to nearly 30 per cent in 2011.

Someone you thought you knew well has opted for more solitude, they have gone off alone to do something that excludes you, temporarily or for a longer period; you cannot really feel jealous, because it excludes everyone else too; you are a little worried about them; you cannot comprehend why they would do anything so weird or how they will manage. You want to understand.

You want to get something done, something that feels important to you. It is quite likely, in this case, that it is something creative. But you find it difficult to concentrate; constant interruptions, the demands of others, your own busy-ness and sociability, endless connections and contacts and conversations make it impossible to focus. You realize that you will not be able to pay proper attention unless you find some solitude, but you are not sure how this might work out for you.

You want to get something done something that feels important to you and of its very nature has to be done alone (single-handed sailing, solo mountaineering and becoming a hermit are three common examples, but there are others). The solitude is secondary to you, but necessary, so you are looking for a briefing. This group is quite small, I think; most of the people who seriously want to do these sorts of things tend to be experienced and comfortable with a degree of aloneness before they become committed to their project.

You have come to the disagreeable awareness that you do not much like the people you are spending time with; yet you sense that you are somehow addicted to them, that it will be impossible to change; that any relationship, however impoverished, unsatisfying, lacking in value and meaning, is better than no relationship; is better than being alone. But you aren’t sure. You are worried by the very negative responses you get whenever you bring the subject up.

You are experiencing a growing ecological passion and love of nature. You want to get out there, and increasingly you want to get out there on your own. You are not sure why this new love seems to be pulling you away from sociability and are looking for explanations.

You are one of those courageous people who want to dare to live; and to do so believe you have to explore the depths of yourself, undistracted and unprotected by social conventions and norms. You agree with Richard Byrd, the US admiral and explorer, who explained why he went to spend the winter alone on the southern polar ice cap in 1934:

‘I wanted to go for experience’s sake; one man’s desire to know that kind of experience to the full . . . to be able to live exactly as I chose, obedient to no necessities but those imposed by wind and night and cold, and to no man’s laws but my own.’

You do not, of course, need to go all the way to Antarctica to achieve this, but you do need to go all the way into yourself. You feel that if you have not lived with yourself alone, you have not fully lived. You want to get some clues about what you might encounter in this solitary space.

You feel and do not fully understand the feeling that you are missing something. You have an inchoate, inarticulate, groping feeling that there is something else, something more, something that may be scary but may also be beautiful. You know that other people, across the centuries and from a wide range of cultures and countries, have found this something and they have usually found it alone, in solitude. You want it. Whatever it is.

You are reading this book not because you want to know how to be alone, which is perfectly easy as soon as you think about it, but because you want to know why you might want to be alone; why the whole subject fills you with both longing and deep unease. You want to know what is going on here.

But actually the most likely reason why you are reading this book (like most books) is curiosity why would someone write this book?

And I can answer that question, so that is where I am going to begin.

I live alone. I have lived alone for over twenty years now. I do not just mean that I am single I live in what might seem to many people to be ‘isolation’ rather than simply ‘solitude’. My home is in a region of Scotland with one of the lowest population densities in Europe, and I live in one of the emptiest parts of it: the average population density of the UK is 674 people per square mile (246 per square kilometre). In my valley, though, we have (on average) over three square miles each. The nearest shop is ten miles away, and the nearest supermarket over twenty. There is no mobile phone connection and very little through traffic uses the single-track road that runs a quarter of a mile below my house. Often I do not see another person all day. I love it.

But I have not always lived alone. I grew up in a big family, one of six children, very close together in age, and in lots of ways a bit like a litter of puppies. It was not a household much given to reflection or introversion we were emotional, argumentative, warm, interactive. We did things together. I am still deeply and affectionately involved with all my siblings. I became a student in 1968 and was fully involved in all the excitement and hectic optimism of those years. Then I was married and had two children. I became a writer. I have friends, friendship remains one of the core values of my life. None of this looked like a life of solitude, nor a good preparation for living up a back road on a huge, austere Scottish moor.

What changed was that I got fascinated by silence; by what happens to the human spirit, to identity and personality when the talking stops, when you press the off-button, when you venture out into that enormous emptiness. I was interested in silence as a lost cultural phenomenon, as a thing of beauty and as a space that had been explored and used over and over again by different individuals, for different reasons and with wildly differing results. I began to use my own life as a sort of laboratory to test some ideas and to find out what it felt like. Almost to my surprise, I found I loved silence. It suited me. I got greedy for more. In my hunt for more silence, I found this valley and built a house here, on the ruins of an old shepherd’s cottage. I moved into it in 2007.

In 2008 I published a book about silence. A Book of Silence was always meant to be a ‘hybrid’ book: it is both a cultural history and a personal memoir and it uses the forms and conventions of both genres melded into a single narrative. But it turned out to be a hybrid in another way that I had not intended. Although it was meant to be about silence, it turned out to be also about solitude and there was extensive and, I now think, justifiable criticism of the fact that it never explicitly distinguished between the two.

Being silent and being alone were allowed to blur into each other in ways that were confusing to readers. For example, one of the things I looked at in A Book of Silence was the actual physical and mental effects of silence ranging from a heightened sensory awareness (how good food tasted, how extreme the experiences of heat and cold were), through to some curious phenomena like voice-hearing and a profound loss of inhibition. These effects were both reported frequently by other people engaged in living silent lives and experienced by me personally in specific places like deserts or mountains. However, a number of commentators felt that these were not effects of silence per se, but of solitude of being alone.

After the book was published I also began to get letters from readers wanting advice . . . and more often than I had anticipated, it was not advice on being silent but on being alone.

Some of this was because there are at least two separate meanings to the word silence. Even the Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions which are mutually exclusive: silence is defined as both the absence of any sounds and the absence of language. For many people, often including me, ‘natural noises’ like wind and running water do not ‘break’ silence, while talking does. And somewhere in between is the emotional experience that human-made noises (aeroplanes overhead, cars on distant roads) do kill silence even where the same volume of natural sound does not.

But it was not just a question of definitions. I came to see that although for me silence and solitude were so closely connected that I had never really needed to distinguish them, they did not need to be, and for many people they were not by any means the same. The proof cases are the communities where people are silent together, like Trappist monasteries or Quaker meetings.

The bedrock of the Quaker way is the silent meeting for worship. We seek a communal gathered stillness, where we can be open to inspiration from the Spirit of God and find peace of mind, a renewed sense of purpose for living, and joy to wonder at God’s creation.



How to Be Alone

by Sara Maitland.

get it at


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