In 2020, Amy Key wrote a Granta essay about the ongoing evasion of romantic love in her life that went suddenly, unexpectedly viral. It was late in the year, following months of lockdowns and closed doors and small, tense spaces, and the kind of yearning that Key was describing – the quiet, insistent, savaging kind – struck right at the heart of a collective, endemic loneliness. Drawing on Joni Mitchell’s seminal album of heartache Blue, Key’s appropriately named essay A Bleed of Blue attempted to negotiate decades of unfulfilled desire, and the harm that prizing one form of intimacy above all others can wreak. “Joni taught me about longing,” Key wrote. “About the gap between what you want and what you have, and what you have and what you had wanted.”
Three years later and the structures of our isolation look, on the surface, much different, but the ongoing alienation that our narrow recourses to intimacy offer remain much the same. Into this comes Key’s Arrangements in Blue, a memoir that builds out her essay into a lyrical consideration of having lived most of her adulthood without romantic love, and how it is possible to render a life legible without the usual language that makes it so. Caught between the headiness of desire and its unmaking potential, Key charts her life once more through Joni Mitchell’s Blue, writing – as her dedication promises – a “love story of being alone”.
Here, AnOther spoke with Key about the possibilities of solitude, the way shame shapes women’s lives, and the politics of writing the self.
Anahit Behrooz: There’s a really interesting tension in Arrangements in Blue between a yearning for romantic love and a decentring of it. Why was it so important to remain in this irreconcilable state?
Amy Key: In a way, that tension is the motivation for the book. As a person living alone who has made a life for herself, I felt I had to choose a side. I felt ashamed for desiring romantic love when it wasn’t coming to me; as if in expressing that desire, I outed myself as an abject or unlovable person. It was these ideas battling each other that made this book feel important. I wanted to take stock of how it was possible to create a really satisfying life that didn’t have romantic love at the centre. But I also wanted to recognise the limits of my own radical position; I’m a cishet white woman and so I can’t claim the way I live as radical. And yet, it is absolutely odd to other people.
AB: You write about aloneness as its own mode of intimacy, rather than an absence. Was that something you were consciously trying to implement?
AK: It was almost something I was feeling my way towards. I recognised that the opportunity I’ve had for solitude is really precious. To be on your own and find distraction and pleasure and interest in your own company – for some people that feels really scary – so I really value that I can. I can go on holiday on my own, I can walk into a bar or a restaurant and eat on my own, I can have no plans on a weekend and it won’t make me feel rejected.
Even people who are in relationships are now seeking this out. I was reading an article the other day that was about very entitled rich couples who go on their own individual honeymoon. [Laughs]. There’s a status some people can access, where being on their own is a kind of privilege. There’s almost something chic about it; there’s more than a hint of glamour.
“I wanted to take stock of how it was possible to create a really satisfying life that didn’t have romantic love at the centre” – Amy Key
AB: It’s interesting the way you think about your solitude as an ability to do things. It reminds me of the subtitle of the book, ‘Notes on Love and Making a Life’ – the way love is a passive thing we wait for, but making a life requires deliberate work.
AK: It’s interesting because I’m aware that lots of people will say to me: ‘If you want romantic love, you have to go out there, you can’t be passive.’ And yet, I see a lot of passive romantic love happening and passive relationships that are no longer romantic relationships, but have the status of being so. As a person who doesn’t have a partner, I do think I sometimes have to put more effort into how to shape a life around me. I have to create a definable framework of my own, because there isn’t a ready-made framework for me to create my life in.
AB: I’m curious about the role shame plays in all this, and the way it shapes women’s interior lives.
AK: Part of the shame of being in a loveless state, romance-wise, is the label ‘single’. On some level I reject it and what it conjures in culture – I don’t want to be defined by my relationship status, whatever it is. And while I like and sometimes yearn for an ‘us’ state – that comfort and security of being able to speak for two rather than stand your ground as a ‘one’ – I hope I will resist thinking of people as homogenised units rather than individual subjects.
It’s tricky because the shame thing is so multi-dimensional. For me, I felt shame because I was single, because I was fat, because I had experienced abuse, because I had had so many unsatisfying sexual relationships and didn’t have the guts to stand up for what I really wanted. And I think all those things compounded. There’s an amazing Emily Berry poem where she talks about how her shame rolls around on the floor and attracts bits of dirt. That’s how I was feeling. I felt like the only antidote was bringing all that into the light.
“To be on your own and find distraction and pleasure and interest in your own company – for some people that feels really scary – so I really value that I can” – Amy Key
AB: There’s a kind of reclamation of desire in that, too. In refusing to have it bound up in shame.
AK: Yeah. I think there is always a gap between what you want for yourself and what you intend, and I feel a lot more committed to working against that. In my twenties and early thirties, I wasn’t asking myself what I really wanted; I was just responding to what other people wanted from me.
AB: These are incredibly vulnerable ideas, and there’s been a move towards a kind of radical honesty in such writing in recent years. It makes me think of an essay I once read about memoir, and the difference between writing your vulnerability as a window and writing it as a wound.
AK: It is really hard. I wish that I could be as certain as the author of that essay because I think they’re probably right, but I don’t know whether I’ve got that relationship with my writing yet. Lots of people have asked if writing the book has been cathartic, and actually it’s been quite painful. But I’m not a theorist, I’m not an academic. I’m negotiating what I think through the way that I feel. I personally love writing where I can sense somebody working things out. I find that kind of vulnerability really interesting. But it’s a fine line … and I hope that I can become more window-like.
It makes me think of years ago, I went to see Maggie Nelson read. And she said: ‘you have to write about what is tearing at your heart’. And I was like: ‘Okay. I’m doing it right now.’ [Laughs]. There is a part of me that believes you need that impetus. I don’t mean right in the moment of distress. But the things that are tearing at your heart are the things you are probably going to write best about.
Arrangements in Blue by Amy Key is published by Jonathan Cape and is out now.