How we turned lockdown isolation into a global polyphonic collection exploring solitude...

There is a myth that the writer is a lonely and isolated creature, working locked away somewhere, observing but not interacting with the world. I’m sure most writers would agree that while there are moments where elements of this myth might ring true, the reality is far less ‘romantic’ – writers have families and friendships, often have other jobs, and are very much part of the world. After all, real, busy populated life is where writing is fomented, tested and finds meaningful connections. So, while the 2020 lockdowns might seem like the perfect condition for writers, the reality is that the situation has had an impact on everyone differently. 

As writers and teacher ourselves, my partner and I knew we were lucky to be able to retreat safely into online work and isolate at home when the lockdowns reached the UK in March 2020, but we also knew the effects on people’s lives and mental health over the coming months would be significant. Sitting up late one night we found ourselves talking about whether we could do something, anything, to help. And over the cutlery-scarred wood of our kitchen table, mugs of comforting coffee clasped in hand, 100 Words of Solitude was conceived.

If you’d told me that night that the idea of connecting writers and readers in isolation would lead to emotional and enlightening email conversations with hundreds of writers from all over the world, would provide a view of how the lockdowns affected diverse different cultures and lives, and eventually result in a publishing contract for a collection of 100 word vignettes and poems exploring the global impact of solitude and isolation in relation to the lockdowns, I wouldn’t have believed you. But this is what happened. An idea, gone global.

We set up a simple website and started tweeting: a call for submissions on the subject of solitude and isolation, with the focus on ‘subjective truth amid media overload.’ Ironically, we hoped it would go viral, although we expected to struggle to hit our target of 100 pieces of writing to showcase on our website. Our remit was of inclusivity: free to submit, open to any writer with no discrimination, and that the best pieces would be published. We also felt it vital that each submission received a personal response regardless of success. 

These small moments of connection proved to be not only deeply appreciated by the writers themselves, but were a humbling and deeply rewarding experience for us too. While we were locked inside, our view reduced to our front yard and the TV, these interactions allowed conversations with writers that often opened up moments of mutual support for mental health issues, loneliness, encouragement to keep studying and writing, and always meant that people were being heard, listened to, and acknowledged. While it’s not possible for every editor or agent to provide personalised feedback, we do not regret taking the time to do so for this project. Despite the hours this task consumed, at a time of disconnection this small act of connection felt vital and valuable.

The final collection contains work selected from an evolving and fluid submission list of hundreds and hundreds. Authors range from awarding-winner novelists and poets to new voices, and are from 31 countries, revealing a truly diverse and unique view of the impact of the pandemic. We picked pieces daily, selecting work that not only spoke to the other pieces but that reflected something of the evolving situation, and posted them online over the space of a few months. As such the collection captures the mutative and emerging nature of the lockdowns in 2020. In keeping with the not-for-profit ethos, all profits from the sale of the print collection are pledge to humanitarian charities enabling the project to reach beyond its initial boundaries.

As the world now encounters a second wave, and new restrictions are imposed, the collection feels ever more poignant and vital. As the author and poet Nessa O’Mahony says of the book: ‘despite the diversity of voices and countries represented, what emerges is the sheer commonality of our experience: the desire for one last gesture of intimacy when that possibility has passed.’

Setting up this project was our way of generating intimacy – with other writers and with readers.  It’s a clear reminder that writers are not, and never will be, alone.

Dr Philippa Holloway and Dr Simon Holloway

You can visit the 100 Words of Solitude website here, or visit their Twitter page.

To order a copy (Hardback limited edition pre-orders, paperback coming soon!): https://literati-magazine.com/product/20/20/100-words-of-solitude-hardcover-limited-edition/

Praise for 100 Words of Solitude, Global Voices in Lockdown 2020.

‘Sometimes you read a collection that changes your way of thinking. This collection does more than that: it embodies a way of feeling. Through the writing brought together in this book the enforced solitude of a global pandemic becomes a call for a more just future -- perhaps one that can now be our truly shared goal.’

- Graeme Harper: writer and academic, chief editor of New Writing.

‘100 Words of Solitude provides a fascinating snapshot of the way we live now. And despite the diversity of voices and countries represented, what emerges is the sheer commonality of our experience: the desire for one last gesture of intimacy when that possibility has passed; the numinous transformation of a world emptied out of people and traffic; how the window becomes a visual bridge between those kept apart. Each piece demonstrates how connected our global village is; that connection is made through fear, courage, hope, despair, boredom, frustration, relief and wonder. The anthology’s ultimate message is reassurance; these 100 words of solitude bring solace of a kind at a time when that’s a rare commodity.

-  Nessa O’Mahony: award-winning poet and novelist. Founder of The Attic Sessions.

A beautiful idea, beautifully executed, these variously-shaped glimpses from our new world have just the right amount of anxiety, curiosity - and, thankfully, humour! - to both reflect each writer's own experiences and remind us all that we are not, in fact, alone. The restriction to just 100 words is a liberation: allow yourself this small moment, this small space, to reflect, to grieve, to look at your pain. Then let us rise back up again.’

- Tania Hershman: award-winning short story writer and poet, founder and curator of ShortStops.info