Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Courting Solitude

by Deb McLeod


Deb McLeod Writers Courting Solitude Summer is not the best time for writing classes. So I took July off to focus on getting the draft of my novel, The Julia Set, ready for my beta readers. The first thing I focused on was this giant spreadsheet of the braid of the four narrators that make up my thriller. It’s one of those pedestrian acts in my writing process that allow me to look at the order of things and make sure Character One isn’t reacting to things that haven’t yet happened in Character Two’s world. An interesting and necessary part of my process but it doesn’t tap into that creative exploration place. I’ve been in editing mode for a few months now.

At the same time, an old friend I knew when I lived in New Orleans messaged me on Facebook to ask how my book was coming. Other than the New Orleans setting, I haven’t really shared all that much about my novel, as it’s a departure from my usual writing style and genre. I’m experimenting.

During our message conversation, it occurred to me that she likely thought this was a novel about My New Orleans – the place and people I experienced when I lived there for a short time in my early twenties. It isn’t.

I went back to my spreadsheet, my characters, and my busy work until an involuntary memory of an incident in New Orleans flashed into my mind. That started a chain of memories that coalesced into an insight of ‘life as story’. The muse had come and I spent the next few hours following those thoughts, planning a story or perhaps a novella based in my experience of New Orleans and where it lived in my life.

Later, back at my spreadsheet, I thought about how long it’s been since inspiration has struck quite that way. Nowadays my inspirations come in small bursts when I’m writing a scene or figuring out a section of my novel. My writing is my work and I do it every day. But I sandwich it between my business and taking care of my health, my home and my family. My month off was intended to pare down life and quiet my mind so I could complete my novel.

Quiet and Creativity

I first noticed how my creativity craves a quiet mind when I went to Italy. I spent the first ten days of a three-week trip on a tour of the Dark Mother on the island of Sardegna. About fourteen of us followed Professor Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum as she traced the ancient goddess religion in art, architecture, and culture from approximately 8000 BCE to present day. After the tour I went on to mainland Italy and stayed in an ancient home that belonged to a branch of my ancestors in a small city in a valley in the Abruzzo Mountains.

By the time I got to the three-floor flat (4 if you count the rooftop patio) I had parlayed my college Spanish into enough Italian to get around. During my stay, I found relatives and old family homes, studied signs of the Goddess that made their way through the Etruscans and into modern day Italian life and culture—all while experiencing the most extraordinary quiet in my mind. No television or radio. Internet was in the back room of Mario’s Gelato Shop in the afternoons on the days when it was open. I did some chatting, but not much; I had no set schedule and all new experiences. I have never written so easily or eagerly. I carried that quiet home and held onto it as long as I could. But, the noise of my life came back. It’s harder now that most of us writers are fulfilling the role of creator, the role of marketer and, in some cases, the role of publisher. Courting the quiet mind has become even more important.

Here are some things that have worked for me:
Deb McLeod Writers Courting Solitude

11:00 am Boundary
My writing life changed for the better about fifteen years ago when I put up my 11:00 am boundary. My day used to start with the newspaper or a brisk walk with my neighbors. I know people who watch the news or news entertainment shows in the morning. Many, many people start the day with email.

I start with writing. Like exercise, writing is great when it’s done. I grew up with the adage "hard things first." So I write first, then engage with the world. My mind is freshest in the morning. I advise my clients to find their most alert sweet spot and put up some boundaries.

Nowadays, I’ve stretched my boundary to 1:30 pm. That means, for the most part, no client meetings, no doctor’s appointments, no lunch visits and no email (this one is hard). Not only does my boundary keep out the rest of the world, it sends a serious intention outward into the universe and inward to your muse that you want to work during these hours, and that you expect some cooperation from the rest of the world and your creative mind. Starting your writing session with a firm intention goes a long way to achieving your goals.

Coffee Shop White Noise
I’m starting to see research studies into why people are more productive in a busy environment like a coffee shop. Some say it’s the white noise. For me, it’s being in the bustle while at the same time being removed from it all. Nothing engages my writer’s mind like that feeling: isolated and observing in a world I both belong to and am alien from. That is the essence of the writer me. It is the child I was and the place where the artist in me emerges.

Mack’s earplugs
I have found the perfect earplugs: not too stiff that I can’t wear them for hours, and not too soft that I can hear through them. Mack’s Original Soft Foam earplugs are my earplug of choice. I buy them on Amazon. I have noticed a difference when I put them in even when I’m home alone. Just cutting out the noise of the refrigerator, the computer, the load of wash I put in, or the occasional dog collar jingle helps me focus. And it simulates that coffee shop feeling. With my Mack’s I can write anywhere. But my zone is sitting in a coffee shop early in the morning with my Mack’s intact.

Stepping out of life isn’t practical, but I can simulate that feeling since I’ve found what works for me. I will continue to take time off from teaching during the summer to recharge the quiet in my mind. And I will court solitude every single day.

What works for you?


About the Author: Deb McLeod, is a writer, creative writing coach and founder of The Writing Ranch. She has both an MFA and a BA in creative writing. She has been teaching and coaching for over ten years. Deb has published short fiction in anthologies and journals. She has written articles and creative nonfiction. Deb has been a professional blogger, tech writer, graphic artist and Internet marketing specialist. 

6 comments:

  1. I do my best writing at a retreat, even if the retreat is in my home. Setting aside a block of time (like a three-day weekend) is my choice for churning out the final chapters of a first draft or for focused reading/revising. For me, daily writing rarely happens, even when I have good intentions. When I do seek solitude for writing sessions, I prefer the library.

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  2. It's great when you know what works for you.

    Retreats are the best! I totally agree that that final push or focused work needs an uninterrupted block of time. What better way than setting aside some time and space to focus.

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  3. I have to have quiet as well. My normal solitude schedule has been disrupted with kiddos about, but that's all right too. I know this time is fleeting.

    I love coffee shops and libraries because they allow me to be alone in a stimulating atmosphere.

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    1. My daughter is in college now, but I remember the juggling. Some of my clients are in that place too and flexibility with some kind of accountability is the only way we've found to do it. But the desire to write doesn't leave and someday the kids will be off to college too.
      Good luck with the juggling

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  4. I'd love to know more about that giant spread sheet. What program do you use? Any set-up tips you'd be willing to share? I'm currently writing a novel with four POV characters myself, and I'm starting to feel as if I'm wrestling a sackful of octopi.

    I can't write in libraries. I was a librarian for many years, and most library noises set of a conditioned, gotta do something about that response. Sometimes something as simple as closing the door of my writing room helps tremendously, since it shuts out household distractions, the temptation to wander away, and cats (once they give up and go into the other 95% of the house.)

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    1. Hi Jane, Rita Mae Brown used to say that she knew the page was a winner if her cat tried to lay on it.

      My giant Excel spreadsheet starts with Blake Snyder's 15 beats. Each narrative point of view gets its own beat sheet. The beat sheets morph (another tab in Excel) into a four-column scene grid. Then that morphs into an ordered four column grid list of the braided scenes. I should say that I could not have even attempted writing this type of book without using Scrivener. It's been invaluable to manage the complexity of the book.

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