Writing is a solitary act, but being a writer is not. We live in the Real World with everyone else, and our lives are just as full and noisy and chaotic as the next person’s. We have friends and family to care for and enjoy. We have day jobs (with meetings and emails and conference calls) and households to manage (via negotiation and sometimes bribery). We are subjected to the same onslaught of news, social media, and sundry other local and global communications as every other non-luddite member of this hyper-connected human race.
What makes writers different is that our lives include another layer that exists, sometimes above and sometimes below, everything else: the world of our writing. And, unlike the activity-powered Real World, this other world of stories and ideas and dreams is brought to life by stillness and solitude.
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When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time alone. Let me clarify – happily alone. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the company of other kids; it was just that my mom had taught me at an early age to enjoy the pleasure of my own company. I often spent whole days engrossed in solitary pursuits like reading, drawing, writing, and building things – faerie houses, spaceships, and time machines. Looking back now from my hustle-and-bustle life as a self-employed single mom, those long, unencumbered days of meandering play and joyful creation shimmer in memory like my personal Shangri-La.
Of course, as we grow up, life gets busier, more complicated, and more demanding of our time. Moments of solitude are harder to conjure, and stillness comes only with great effort. As a freelance writer, I actually spend a lot of time “alone” (unless you count the company of my two cats), but being “alone” is not the same as being “solitary.” My usual workdays might find me by myself in my home office, but I share those hours with the invisible yet weighty presence of my clients. And then there are the tangible interruptions like phone calls and emails that pierce my awareness like a barrage of constant sonar pings.
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Solitude has a different feeling. It is a space free from the threat of intrusion. It is like a bubble of time out of time, protected from the outside world. It’s a place where you can set aside all your cares and let fall any masks you might be wearing. In solitude you can sink and stretch into your own skin, simultaneously grounding yourself while reaching out to the edges of your thoughts.
Solitude is a powerful creative catalyst because it cuts your ties to the external, Real World so that you are free to step fully into your inner, creative world. Stillness is a powerful creative catalyst because it is the path you follow to go deeper into that inner world.
Some of my favorite childhood memories are of long, solitary afternoons spent nestled in the woods with only my sweet German shepherd dog, Boomer, and the denizens of the forest for company. Having separated myself from the outside world, I would sit in stillness for as long as an hour until I felt like a part of the natural landscape. When the moment seemed right, I filled my hands with birdseed purloined from my mom’s feeder and lifted them up to the chickadees and titmice that chittered in the branches around me. Like a scene in a fairytale, the tiny birds would alight on my outstretched fingertips, cocking their heads to look me in the eye before flitting away with their prize.
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For a writer, solitude and stillness are crucial ingredients in the magical elixir that enables you to create. Without them, you risk not only distraction, but the contamination of your unique voice by the influence – intentional or passive – of others. Though we writers live in the Real World and mine every observation and experience for inspiration and insight, only in solitude and stillness can we alchemize that raw material into writing that is uniquely ours. Only in solitude and stillness can you get quiet enough to draw your best and truest ideas out of the ether, each thought and story like a small bird winging its way to the tip of your pen.
And only in solitude and stillness can you travel deep enough into your own story to see the true shape of the tales you want to tell. Any creative practice – writing, painting, dancing, etc. – requires you live with one foot in the “real” world and one foot in your inner, creative world. Like the heroes and heroines of ancient and epic tales, you must make a cyclical journey from the reality of the day-to-day into the strange world where stories come from. You must brave the strangeness and carry the treasure of your experiences from one place into the other, weaving a bridge between the worlds, one strand of story at a time.
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It is important to understand that as a writer you need solitude and stillness not so much when you are actually putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, but in the spaces between writing sessions. Solitude and stillness can be helpful when you actually sit to put the words down, but they are not necessary. You do not have to be alone to write, and the creative process is actually very active – drawing on and feeding a vital energy all its own. Immersing yourself in solitude and stillness outside of your writing time helps you replenish your creative energy and inspiration. It prepares you for the act of writing.
Becoming comfortable in solitude is, like writing, a practice. If you are not already accustomed to the experience, it can take some getting used to. Though we lament the constant and persistent distractions of external, Real World stimulation – from the obligations of family to the siren call of social media sites – if we were being honest we might admit that we take some comfort in being constantly busy. It’s easier, after all, to comment on a Facebook post than it is to craft one good sentence or to unearth the essence of a creative project.
It’s completely natural to use constant activity to shield yourself from the hard work of creation and the even harder work of getting to the heart of what you want to create in the first place. Don’t feel bad. Solitude and stillness help you connect with your best and truest creative urges and inspirations, but they also force you to confront the darker parts of your experience and inner mythology. In the quiet of time alone, many memories and fears may feel free to creep up and sit beside you. They may whisper in your ears of inadequacy, regret, and doubt. Don’t let them scare you away.
Our busy, hectic lives eat up our deep awareness like a sleight of hand trick that fools us with misdirection. But, if we can learn to step into and embrace solitude and stillness, we will finally be able to see past the illusion. We will learn to manage our personal demons and even put them to work in our creative endeavors.
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It is, perhaps, ironic that solitude and stillness are such a critical part of creating stories that we ultimately hope will create connections to and move the hearts and minds other people. It may seem counterintuitive that we need to reach so deeply inside ourselves in order to create the most authentic connections with others, but it also makes sense. It is in those deep places where we are most similar. Shorn of the trappings of the external world, we are finally able to see each other truly and speak from the heart about our experiences and dreams.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.