Aug 08 2017
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Tips for beginning writers: Resist distraction and embrace solitude to write more and better

For a long time now, I’ve wanted to say something to writers, especially to beginning and aspiring writers, about embracing solitude.

Perhaps it’s an overly romanticized notion, that writing is a solitary path. Perhaps it’s even strange for me to say–me, who tries to create a community around writing through the Center and in my personal life, and who emphasizes to my students the need for community.

The need for community, though, is born of the truth: to create, you must have quiet.

I’m not referring to atmosphere or work environment when I say you must have quiet. Many of us can write on the bus, in the waiting room, with children crawling between our feet, TV blaring in the background. That’s adaptability. If you can write in the presence of kids and media, you have mastered what I really mean when I say “quiet.” You have found your inner quiet. Your sweet spot. I think of it as my tree pose, because I’m no yoga guru but dang if I don’t have a strong, solid tree pose. When I’m in a good tree pose, an earthquake couldn’t knock me out of it.

You’ll never find your sweet spot, your tree pose, your inner quiet, if you don’t embrace the solitude that being a writer requires.

Writer bell hooks said, “Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving.” Yes, but she could’ve stopped at “the art,” no?

Writer Oscar Wilde said, “To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.” What he meant is that in moments of doing nothing, allowing ourselves to be bored, letting our brains wander off into the territory of imagining–those are the moments in which we are prone to creation. You can’t create if you can’t think. You can’t think deeply if you’re never alone. And studies show that social media, web browsing, TV, and other forms of media could be changing how our brains work.

At The Big Think, I read an article called “Being busy is killing our ability to think creatively.” The article references a book called Deep Work by Cal Newport, who suggests, “What seems to be lost in being ‘connected’ is really irreplaceable time gained to focus on projects. Without that time…you’re in danger of rewiring your neural patterns for distraction. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.” Information overload kills creativity. In the same article, the author quotes neuroscientist Daniel Levitin:

Artists recontextualize reality and offer visions that were previously invisible. Creativity engages the brain’s daydreaming mode directly and stimulates the free flow and association of ideas, forging links between concepts and neural modes that might not otherwise be made.

A publication no less business (i.e., busy-ness)-minded than Forbes has touted “The importance of doing nothing”: “Doing nothing or having nothing to do, are valuable opportunities for stimulating unconscious thought processes. Unconscious thought excels at integrating and associating information, by subconsciously carrying out associative searches across our broad database of knowledge.” Integrating and associating information sounds a lot like metaphor-making, no?

At Literary Hub, Lan Samantha Chang urges especially writers to guard the sanctity of a “rich inner life,” one that has nothing to do with networking, self-promotion, or publication and everything to do with holding close the wonder of the written word:

Hold onto that part of you that first compelled you to start writing. Hold onto that self through the vicissitudes of ‘career.’ A writing life and a writing career are two separate things, and it’s crucial to keep the first. The single essential survival skill for anybody interested in creating art is to learn to defend this inner life from the world.

“The inner life,” Chang insists, “is the child who flourishes in a quiet and non-judgmental space.”

How to protect your inner life, as a writer? Here are some practices that have worked for me:

  • Privilege your writing above everything you can. Your health, your family, your work, your spirituality…and your writing.
  • Dedicate a space in your home for writing. It can be a room or a corner with a comfy pillow or the kitchen table with a cup of tea.
  • Try to make time to do nothing. Sometimes doing nothing is everything.
  • Let go of preconceptions, expectations, and notions of status and success in writing. A Chinese proverb reminds us, “Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.”
  • Take periodic breaks from social media and screens. I don’t mean step away for a couple hours. I mean take a week, or a month, or more, and ignore those spaces.
  • Read a lot. A LOT. Keep track of the books you’ve read and what you like about them, or what they made you think about, in a journal.
  • Make a “Why I Write” statement and tack it up in your writing space. This is your mantra. Repeat as necessary.
  • Embrace solitude. You don’t have to live in a cabin on top of a mountain to be a writer. You do have to create a cabin on top of a mountain in your mind to be a writer.

Give it a try and see if you don’t get more good writing done.