Alone time is a tricky subject. It hints of antisocial behavior, even selfishness, but I find it's absolutely essential for my sanity, balance, and creative spark.
Cain's book gave me enough scientific backing to accept the idea that I need to be alone a good portion of each day to hear myself and my story. I'm not alone in that need, either!
One study revealed that practicing in solitude caused a dramatic jump in skill. Research psychologist Anders Ericsson evaluated how chess players and violinists--two very disparate creative groups--took leaps ahead in their abilities when they had enough "serious study alone."
Three groups of violinists keep detailed diaries of the time they spent practicing and how they practiced. All three groups practiced the same amount of time.
The group that gained the most skills practiced in solitude. Ericsson found the benefit of "serious study alone" held true for chess players, athletes in team sports, and other expert performers.
Writing Demands "Utmost of Self-Revelation and Surrender"
Franz Kafka wrote about this to his fiance. They were deeply in love, and the woman wanted to sit near Kafka as he worked.
"Writing means revealing oneself to excess," Kafka replied, "that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which, therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind . . . . That is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes."
In teaching thousands of writers how to craft their books, I've discovered that the need for privacy and alone time arrives in different degrees for each of us. Depending on where you are in the book journey, your need might be extreme or or it might be small.
To recognize the need, honor it--and not fear it--will make a big difference in your writing.
We are trained to interact and react with the world around us. Many of us are socialized to pay less attention to our own thoughts and needs than to those of the people we relate to.
As we grow, we master the balance with this rhythm--or not. Ideally, we find a way to put enough attention within as well as without.
But when we take on a large creative project, like a book, the balance must shift. Books demand more time inside, to think, muse, dream, and design our stories.
If we operate with our normal social world ratio, our inner lives will come up lacking, and the book will starve from lack of nourishment.
Alone time--truly alone--gives the writer back the necessary balance.
We can retreat at home too, by negotiating alone time. If we spend time alone regularly, it allows us to practice the balance we need. Soon the pulse of it becomes like a heartbeat, impossible to live without.
Personally, I need alone time 4-5 days a week, at least 1-2 hours of it at a stretch. It takes me that long to hear myself again. My family and I have to negotiate this; it doesn't happen naturally. We get out our calendars and schedule alone time along with all the other necessities.
It works best if there is absolutely no one around to attend to, to even minutely distract from the interior world we need to listen for. If we can arrange this kind of alone time, it really refreshes the creative spirit.
Alone Time in Public
In Quiet, Susan Cain also talks about being alone in public. Some writers need the "mere presence of other people" to help the mind "make associative leaps."
It seems paradoxical, but remember that each creative person is different.
Being alone in public is not about interaction, like talking on the cell phone, texting, chatting with the person at the table next to yours. It's about the presence of people, a crowded cafe or library, but being with them in the quiet of your own thoughts.
Other humans are intent in their own lives and you can become busy in yours, with the hum of their noise in the background to keep you company.
When Susan Cain began writing her book, she set up the perfect home office with desk, good light, and plenty of quiet time. But when she tried to write, nothing happened. She couldn't even launch page one.
So she took her laptop to a neighborhood cafe and wrote most of the book there.
She says,"The coffee shop was full of people bent over their own computers, and if the expressions of rapt concentrations on their faces were any indication, I wasn't the only one getting a lot of work done . . . . the cafe . . . . was social, yet its casual, come-as-you-please nature left me free from unwelcome entanglements and able to deliberately practice my writing. I could toggle back and forth between observer and social actor as much as I wanted. I could also control my environment. . . . . I had the option to leave whenever I wanted peace and quiet to edit what I'd written that day."
Anonymity is the key. If I have to respond, to be seen and have to acknowledge whomever is seeing me, my click-in to the Muse is compromised. Being alone in public means being as invisible as every other person in the room.
I was relieved to read Cain's explanation. Some of my best writing and revising happens in cafes when I have had enough quiet time at home. I have my favorite Starbucks, my Vente cup of Passion iced tea, and my solitude with the dozens of others also sitting in public, alone.
This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Read an excerpt from Quiet (click here) or check out Susan Cain's TED Talk on the Power of Introverts, which Bill Gates named one of his all-time favorites.
2. Spend some time this week keeping an "alone time" diary. Assess how much alone time you get, if it's enough or too much or nowhere near what you need to write your book.
3. Renegotiate your alone time, based on what you learn. If you are alone too much, take yourself to a public place and practice being alone with others. See what difference it makes in your writing and your life.