Over the last year, everyone has had to adjust to living in the ‘new normal’ with face masks, social distancing and bubbles becoming common place. For many this will also have meant spending more time alone and probably much more than any of us would have been expecting when 2020 began.
However, Francesca Specter was ahead of the curve when it came to considering how we spend time alone. In 2019, she coined the term ‘Alonement’ as a way of describing and celebrating the quality time we spend by ourselves. Francesca initially started writing on the subject as a blog but it has grown further into a podcast (now in its third series) and today the book, Alonement: How to be alone and absolutely own it, is published.
We caught up with Francesca to chat all about her blog, her podcast and her book as well as reflecting on her journalistic career so far and whether Susie Dent will one day be giving ‘Alonement’ as a possible nine-letter word answer on Countdown…
Firstly, what made you choose a career in journalism?
I knew I always wanted to go into magazine journalism, specifically to do features. I suppose it was really just an interest in people and what makes them tick and what motivates them. It was kind of looking at how people live and how people interact, that was my area of interest. I grew up addicted to magazines and the way that you could draw out a story and create conversations with that medium, so that was always what I wanted to do. My MA was in magazine journalism and I was features editor on the student newspaper during my undergrad at Leeds University. That’s what gave me the grounding and I then went into magazines. But then obviously, since then, so many different ways to be a journalist have opened up, which is really interesting.
Now you’re working as a freelancer, but you’ve worked in print journalism and you’ve worked in online journalism. Do you think there is still a place for print journalism in today’s world?
Yeah, absolutely, I think that there definitely is. I think a lot of what we focus on right now is being more mindful and consuming things in a slower way and creating more nuanced conversations. Everything works in ebbs and flows, and online journalism was and continues to be very exciting. However, I think with that sense of pace, there’s also a sense that with the evolution of something like social media, there is a feeling that we need to also slow down and reflect and look more deeply at things. I know that print has faced a tough time, especially during the pandemic, but there’s always a place for it and it is coming back almost to what we first demanded of journalism, which is that slower and more considered pace.
Moving on to talking about Alonement, how did you come up with the term?
It came to me in a burst of inspiration when I was writing a blog post – in January 2019 – to announce my new year’s resolution to learn to love alone time, and couldn’t find a word to describe what I meant – so I coined one on the spot. I think I like it because it is quite a clever word if you break it down. It can be reverse syllables and then it’s ‘meant to be alone’. Alonement sounds like a state of intention, and that you are owning being alone, which is everything that I’m about. The reason that I thought that there needed to be a word like Alonement, was because I realised that there wasn’t a direct opposite to the word loneliness, and that was a problem for me. I’ve always thought you need to create a forward movement to create a new way of thinking and you need the language to express it. The English language is a wonderful language and there are many words for many different things. However, the fact that there wasn’t one for something that was so crucial and important and meaningful within, at least my life, then that’s where it’s started. I’ve since trademarked the word and I remember when I used to search it on Google, and it would autocorrect to atonement, but now I search on Google and I’ve got 10 pages of information about Alonement. It’s really been an amazing journey in that way.
After coming up with the word, what made you then start a blog on the subject?
It was a very personal journey and initially it was a new year’s resolution for me. It then snowballed into something that became meaningful in my life and was making a difference to my life, so I thought, well, this is going to help at least one or two people if I talk about this more. I always used to write about new dating concepts when I was a lifestyle journalist at Yahoo, things like gaslighting and ghosting and how those have really contributed to our understanding of how we date and that’s been really important for people. So, I used my journalistic intuition and I realised that if Alonement was making a meaningful difference to me, then it was something that deserved writing about. It began with just the blog and I’ve blogged for the past 10 years so that immediately came naturally to me, whether or not blogs are the hot medium to write in at the moment is another matter. It felt the most natural medium for me to start putting my views out there again, in that more long form way, because I think that as wonderful as it is to have platforms on social media, I don’t think you can really have a concept like Alonement solely from social media, it needs to have a home somewhere else. The more that I then wrote about it, the more that people joined the conversation and the more I realised that it was very much worthy of greater amplification, hence why I started exploring new mediums. Also, not many people know this but my book proposal was actually written before my podcast came out, but it was when I started thinking about how I was going to market a book and how I was going to have those sort of conversations with publishers that I realised that Alonement would benefit from not just being something that I was observing and talking about in my own life, but also in others. That was why I then progressed the blog into the podcast and decided to explore some other voices and to highlight something that I feel very passionately about with Alonement, which is that it’s not life stage specific, it’s not romantic stage specific or age specific – it’s for everyone. So, getting a diverse range of people on the podcast, as I’ve continued to do, has helped to prove that point in a sort of grander away. Then my publisher approached me in January 2020 and we met for the first time on Valentine’s Day and that’s how it all progressed.
How did you find the experience initially of podcasting and working in a different medium?
I think it definitely has its own demands and it was a learning curve, but very interesting. I think as a journalist, you want to go in super prepared and super researched, knowing everything you can, prepared for every eventuality and with podcasting your skills as a journalist comes in the postproduction stage as well as the interview itself. The difference is that you have to be aware that there is a third person in the room. A lot of journalists go into podcasting and I’m sure we all face the same hurdles. I was having a conversation with a journalist the other day about learning to be aware of that third person without the perceived knowledge that you would, as a journalist writing something up, add in the postproduction stage. You need to give that platform and that outside knowledge and you need to bring that into podcast, which is really interesting. You have to quite literally spell something out, and that doesn’t feel right. I think that convergence of the sort of compensation in an interview that doesn’t come naturally at the start and it doesn’t to anyone. As an interviewer, you’d want to go in knowing everything about someone, so then to ask your podcast interviewee to state something that is actually blindingly obvious to anyone who has done an ounce of research on them seems strange, but that’s where you go. It’s very interesting to think about the differences between podcasting and then just journalistic interviewing. There was aspects of it that did come easily to me and there’s valuable research skills as a journalist that obviously do come in useful for podcasters but it’s always learning to limit that. Also, I guess it was easier for me in the sense that I had developed this ability to not be too starstruck by interviewees, because I’d interviewed some amazing people as a journalist like Jane Fonda, Fearne Cotton and Belinda Carlisle. It was very nerve-wracking interviewing, for instance, my first guest Alain de Botton, who, by the way, is lovely and puts you at ease and was so reassuring. However, as nerve racking as that was, it was possibly less so than it would have been if I had gone straight into podcasting from another profession where I hadn’t really done interviews.
Who has been your favourite guest so far and why?
Obviously interviewing someone like Alain de Botton is a complete honour and I think that he contributed so much especially at the stage where I spoke to him. The concept of Alonement is ever shaping itself and I think that he contributed so much to my growing formulation of the concept. But also interviewing someone like Daisy Buchanan who has been such an inspiration to me in my journalistic career and the same goes for Poorna Bell. I also really enjoyed interviewing people who are at completely different life stages to me because it offered a different way into Alonement to different people. Someone like Joe Good who when I interviewed them had been living alone for 30 years at the age of 64. She was so incredible in that she was able to offer such different perspectives and that was really interesting. So, I’ve enjoyed speaking to different guests but for different reasons.
You have now written the Alonement book (which comes out today), how did you find writing that compared to your blog or freelance writing?
Yeah, that was interesting I mean it was such a beast to start with, having to write 70,000 words is a whole different kettle of fish. It was nice to be able to stick with something for a long time rather than as a magazine journalist where you get to immerse yourself in a feature for like a week or two and that’s wonderful but you then have to say goodbye. So, it was really great to think quite deeply about something. In general, people are quite scatter brain by nature as we tweet out every thought and all of that and working as a digital journalist as I was at the time, I was writing sometimes six or seven stories a day so to move from that to the pace of being able to really focus was wonderful and at the same time, it was very challenging. You are pretty much doing an academic study and I was constantly thinking, this is like writing 10 dissertations, and the fact that I was really thinking about it in terms of my university degree, rather than my journalistic ability, shows how much of a step it was. I was given a lot of freedom by my publishers which was nice because they really believed in the concept and of course the concept was mine. This wasn’t me taking a different spin on a concept that had been there for a while so in a way I was very lucky that I had that authority on it. They were very encouraging and very faithful publishers because I was a new author so I was very lucky that they were able to give me that freer reign over it. But no, it was a wonderful process and I’m just itching to write another one right now.
Do you think a second book is in the works then?
I think Alonement has more legs. But I think in terms of where that’s going to be steered then the missing part at the moment is the reception from the general public and seeing where the conversation goes, because it is a conversation. I wrote the book, but the reading of a book is a conversation, the interplay between the reader and the writer, so I’m waiting to see what the response is like and what the demand is like, and I guess what I feel inspired to do in light of that.
Obviously, people have had to spend much more time alone in the last year or so due to the pandemic. So, what advice would you give, especially to those within the media, about how to stay productive and make the most from it?
It’s hard because I wrote a book on being alone, while living alone, while working alone, while in lockdown. I think some people would just say I would be advocating to be more alone and hammering at that nail. But I wouldn’t. Alonement is taking joy in solitude whether that comes in a work context or in a private context but I think that it thrives within a scaffolding of social time, or at least connection and you can get connection in different ways. For instance, I’ve recently signed on to the Clubhouse and I’m really feeling a lot more connected using that social media app compared to something like Instagram. It really is important to search different ways you can be connected, whether that’s going for walks with friends, or whether that’s connecting with those you live with. I think that we do need to be conscious of that because Alonement has always been something that has been about balance, so I think you should still be striving for that balance and keeping things varied. Often having other people around sort of forces us to have, for better or for worse, at least some variation in those days. If you’re parenting and you have a toddler that wants to play a game with you or you have a partner that wants you to watch a new TV programme then often having other people in our lives forces us to have variety and novelty. Whereas being alone then we can forget to introduce that variety. It’s important to change things up, whether that’s having a different breakfast before you start your working day or changing up the way you work so that you’re working in a different place in the house or occasionally working outside if you are able to do that in the summer months. I think that just introducing some sort of novelty keeps things fresh and interesting. I’ve learnt to, in a bizarre turn of events, edit my podcasts or at least to do the first listen of my podcasts while walking around my flat, or walking around the block. And changing the way I work has been a really useful tool for me so introducing novelty, even if it’s not forced upon us by others, then it’s a really important way to keep motivated and keeps things fresh in our minds when working solo. Also just being kind to yourself and making sure that while you might want to work also that there are times when you don’t work. No one when you’re solo is telling you you have to stop working so you have to tell yourself and you have to bring all those self-care things in, because that’s how you thrive and also how you avoid burnout.
As well as the blog/podcast and book, you also work as a freelancer too – what kind of content do you find useful from PRs?
So basically what I write about is either Alonement based topics or certain things that are related to Alonement so anything pertaining to self care, which is a huge industry at the moment, or anything pertaining to mental health and also physical health and wellness. I do have a background in writing for health as I was a features writer for two years at Healthy magazine. I also write a lot of beauty features for publications like Healthy and Top Sante so any beauty related content would be great. Also partnership and sponsorship opportunities for Alonement the blog and the podcast and the newsletter.
Other than the success of Alonement, what are some of the other career highlights for you so far in journalism?
I’m quite happy with my journalistic career and how varied it’s been able to be. I wouldn’t say I’m that far in, maybe six or seven years into my career, and I’ve already been able to work at big magazines such as Healthy, but also work on digital platforms. I was deputy editor of Yahoo lifestyle and I worked for the Daily Express and being able to keep up with that pace and pivot quite successfully from print to digital was a big deal. Also, some of the interviews that I was able to do even early on in my career with people like Fearne Cotton and Darcy Bussell was really great. I’m doing more of that for the podcasting now but I’d love to do more of that going forward journalistically as well.
Finally, what would be the ultimate achievement for Alonement. Would it be to get the word into the dictionary or where would you like to take the concept?
That would be really brilliant and a big goal for me. I suppose mentally why I started this is because Alonement benefited me so much and I haven’t been bored of it for a moment because I know just how much it benefits other people so being able to get into the dictionary will be the ultimate way to normalise. Also, it would mean that the word had been used so much that it was worthy of being in the dictionary. Otherwise, it’s about getting it out to as many and as diverse a group of people as I can because I don’t want people to be motivated by a fear of being alone. I want them to be motivated by their own aloneness and their uniqueness and being able to have the bravery to sort of confront that. Whether that comes from the success of the book or the continued success of the podcast, it doesn’t really matter. It’s just about getting the word out and the removal of the stigma of being alone and instead the celebration of something that I’m very passionate about.
Alonement: How to be alone and absolutely own it (March 2021, Quercus) is available in hardback, ebook and audiobook formats on Amazon and Waterstones. Follow Francesca @ChezSpecter on Twitter and Instagram and follow @alonementofficial on Instagram and Facebook.