Weekend Edition – Stillness, Solitude, and the Practice of Writing

Retreat HesseWriting 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 FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

52 thoughts on “Weekend Edition – Stillness, Solitude, and the Practice of Writing

  1. It’s funny also that in modern times being alone more often than not is seen as unhealthy or for sad acts. The reality is that todays society pushes the extrovert, they are heard more, but I like to think introverts get more done, in a meaningful way.
    Long live stillness and solitude (especially when I’m writing!) 🙂

  2. I work full time, but I also spend a lot of time alone, and to honest I wouldn’t be able to write if there other people around (I know – I’ve tried it!) Being alone allows me to be productive, creative and imaginative. Which is nice.

    • My ability to write amidst other people varies with my mood. Though I usually write alone without any accompaniment (no music or other noise), every once in a while I’m wildly productive sitting amidst the comfortable hum and bustle of the local coffee shop. But, I still crave true solitude when I can be not only physically alone, but also mentally in my own space. That’s when the really good stuff happens. 🙂

      Thanks for coming by!

  3. Great article and enjoyed the previous one. I was in the same situation and spent most of the childhood in solitude. It’s doesn’t hurt to have 307 lifetimes under the belt :). Also, can see your viewpoint as time passes and maturity decides to sets in, that responsibilities increase. Seems like time, energy and personal time is held in disregard for a life of pursuing materials.

    • Ok. I’ll bite – 307 lifetimes? Intrigued.

      Yes – our responsibilities increase. That’s part of growing up and part of life. BUT, I do wish that our culture encouraged us to continue seeking out solitude and stillness, even in the midst of our busy lives. There are pockets of support – like meditation, etc. – but those seem to still be part of the fringe vs. the mainstream. I do think, however, that for creatives, cultivating a practice of solitude and stillness needs to be more the norm than the exception.

      Thanks for being here.

    • Me, too!
      If I don’t get enough solitude, I eventually have a bit of a meltdown. I have been known, on those occasions when I’ve been deprived of “me time” too long, to lose it just a little and growl at everyone to, “Just leave me alone!” … with an implied “or else” at the end.

  4. Pingback: Weekend Edition – Stillness, Solitude, and the Practice of Writing | Bad Ambience

  5. Another great thought provoking article. But what if you’ve been forced into solitude? Early experiences in my life left me not particularly trusting of people so staying ‘with’ myself is what I feel most comfortable with. I know, its not healthy, as in order to write, one must engage with the world but I hope that I can become more trusting. Thanks for this.

    • That is difficult. I was painfully shy and awkward when I was a kid. I am less so now, but still don’t find it easy to be fully relaxed in the company of others. Your comment reminds me how often I used (and, let’s be honest, sometimes still use) my writing as a cloak of invisibility. Back in elementary school I spent many recess hours tucked in a corner of the playground with my notebook and a pen. When I was older and commuting back and forth to Boston on the train, I still used my notebook as a kind of protective shield – dividing myself from the rest of the world by stepping “out” of it in order to become an impartial observer.
      I wonder how common this kind of experience is for writers. Surely, we are not alone, you and I, in retreating into ourselves and our writing because we feel uncomfortable being more fully in the Real World. It’s so interesting how writing can be both a method of withdrawal and of reaching out.

    • It’s so important, having time to ourselves. Sometimes, when life gets really busy, I almost forget how much I need solitude as part of my process. Those are inevitably the times when I sit to write and find myself with nothing to say. I haven’t given myself the chance to sit in stillness so I can hear my own voice. That’s never fun. Blank page. No thoughts. Fears of having nothing left to say. Ever. And then I give myself some time apart, and things start to come together again. Phew! 😉

  6. Another wonderful post, Jamie.
    I need that solitude you speak of, and when I don’t get it, my creativity suffers. Not only my creativity though, but also my energy and motivation. I need to get away and into my own space in creation again.

    • Thank you, Linda. 🙂
      I agree that a lack of solitude drains not only creative energy, but also “general” energy. Without time alone to think, I feel my stores of strength depleted. I start to feel “hollow.” I do not know much about the differences between introverts and extroverts, but one thing I’ve heard is that while extroverts are energized by time in the company of others, introverts are drained. Maybe that has something to do with it.

  7. Pingback: Weekend Edition – Stillness, Solitude, and the Practice of Writing | m

  8. A very deep and meaningful post. I can totally understand what you mean about enjoying being alone, and yes, it gets increasingly harder to enjoy quality ‘me-time’ as you get older! The business of our real lives is a constant intrusion as well, and I get annoyed with myself for letting social media/Facebook etc eat up time I could be using to be creative. This post has given me motivation to try and battle those pesky distraction monsters though 🙂

    • It is especially frustrating when we are the culprits behind our lack of solitude. Bad enough when the world is keeping us from that time, but when we fritter away time with meaningless activities (e.g., Facebook, TV, etc.), that’s even worse. I often justify such activities by saying that they relax me, that I “deserve” a break and some mindless entertainment. But, nine times out of ten, I regret my choice. I’m not exactly sure why I talk myself into choosing those activities over solitude and stillness or even just writing or reading. I’m going to guess it has something to do with avoidance … “Resistance.” Worth exploring further.
      Thanks for coming by. Always nice to see you!

  9. Pingback: Weekend Edition – Stillness, Solitude, and the Practice of Writing | The Scribblings of Stu

  10. Completely agree… I was another one who spent a lot of time happily alone as a child, and those quiet alone times were when my creativity bloomed most. It’s a lot harder to create those moments of solitude now as an adult with a busy lifestyle, but it’s even more important now to try! Thank you for that reminder 🙂

    • I wish I could create a garden of solitude and invite writers and artists to spend time there – like a safe haven from the craziness that is Real Life. It does get so hard to create solitude on our own when life gets as busy as it does, but it’s so important to try.

      Thanks for being here!

  11. Thank you for this! Sometimes I feel guilty for enjoying my time alone. I have to make time for myself setting aside time just to be alone. I set my alarm and get up early or give up media/tv time for it and it feels good every time. I find the more consistant my practice is the less I crave the “junk food” time, so that’s good! We know that if we take care of ourselves first we can take better care of others but sometimes it’s nice to hear it again (and again)!

    • Oh, how I used to love my precious early morning hours. I could get up at 6AM and have a whole hour to myself before I had to wake my daughter. Unfortunately, now that my daughter is in middle school her day starts earlier so we’re both out of bed at 6AM. I thought – briefly – that I would get up even earlier, but I discovered that I just didn’t have it in me. Now I try to recreate my cocoon of solitude and stillness after my girl gets on the bus. It’s not quite the same, though. Perhaps I’ll have to make an effort to get up early at least one or two days each week. I do miss it! Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

      • Oh yea it’s not easy for sure. My last job had me setting the alart for 3am to get to work by 6am! Now I do the same as you- catch that sweet spot after he leaves for school. There is nothing like that scared time presunrise though 🙂

  12. Dearest Jamie

    I haven’t accomplished a lot as a writer in the last two years, but I have accomplished one not-so-minor feat: being comfortable in silence.

    When I first started out, I wrote against the ‘back sound’ of music, TV Shows, and other mindless chatter. Over time, I realized that my ideas are scared of noise and peak out of their mental cave only when there is dead silence.

    If I get too uncomfortable with the tick-tock of my clock, I turn on a productivity app and play some rain music. LOL

    But, overall, silence has become a necessity for me to create.

    Some caveats:

    a. I LOVE “Pandora’ing 😉 during the research phase….(and, sometimes, during the editing phase)
    b. If a client’s assignment is taxing, I hurt my eardrums with loud music to pump me up…

    As for solitude,oh my, so long as I know that all my loved ones are alive, I CRAVE MY OWN SPACE!!!!

    My ideal day: waking up at 6, reading a few passages from uplifting books, taking that first morning sip of my hot coffee, opening a crossword book, and spending all day reading or puzzling or WRITING.



    • Your ideal day and my ideal day are SO similar. 😉

      I think that learning to be comfortable in silence is a huge achievement. It’s something many people never experience. I loved hearing about how you weaned yourself off the noise distractions, and now integrate them in new, positive ways. I love to listen to Pandora when working, but only during certain kinds of tasks – usually more mechanical things like uploading posts, editing photos, copying and pasting links, etc. And I also use music to energize myself when I need a little boost. (Don’t tell, but sometimes I even sing a few power ballads.)

      Thanks, as always, for being here and sharing. Enjoy the silence and the music!

  13. Pingback: Monday Musings: The Darkness Within Writing | The Scribblings of Stu

  14. I wish I had had spent as much moments alone in childhood as much you did. Its so weird, but we dont realise as to how much each and every moment spent in our childhood shapes us as adults or grown ups. It molds our image of ourselves also this world. Captured the essence of both writing and solitary alliance with immense precision.
    Do read my poem solitary alliance…you will relate 🙂

    • Childhood does mold us in some ways, doesn’t it?
      Thanks for directing me to your poem. I enjoyed it, and I love the header on your site “The life and lies …” Very clever. 🙂

      Here’s to finding the solace of solitude so we can accept ourselves.

  15. Pingback: Isolation And Interaction – writers groups | Philip J Bradbury – wordsmith

    • Thank you, Philip. And thanks for sharing the link to your post. I enjoyed reading it. Balance is definitely key, and – as you point out – we have a choice in how we structure the give and take of being in the company of others/out in the world and being creative in solitude. Thanks!

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  18. Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Here’s just one of the Deeply Meaningful sentences from today’s re-blog:

    “For a writer, solitude and stillness are crucial ingredients in the magical elixir that enables you to create. ”

    And, I believe folks who aren’t writers can also mine this article for helpful wisdom 🙂

  19. Pingback: Writer’s Weekend Edition – A Crisis of [Writing] Faith | Live to Write – Write to Live

  20. Pingback: Top 5 Writer’s Weekend Edition Posts of 2016 | Live to Write – Write to Live

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