Permission, Uncertainty & Solitude

My first message today was from Paul Jarvis. You'd be wise to subscribe to his weekly essays which are brief and useful for creative and independent people. His latest is about doing things on our own without seeking permission. The key line is this:

We've traded gatekeepers for gurus, and continue to seek permission and guidance to do what we want to do with our work.

Instead, we should ask the following questions:

  • Did we create something that other people want to buy from us?
  • Do those same people want to keep buying or can we find new people to also buy from us?

I replace "buy" with "read" but it's the same thing and gets at an idea I have about Twitter.

I got off Twitter last summer but went back on in January to promote my writing. The account hasn't taken off. I don't take the time to curate and promote it. I've been advised to build an audience. Twitter seemed one way to do that, but I'm unwilling to devote the effort to it.

I need to put the effort into learning how to write better. I don't have enough energy to do both.

The second message, from Leo Babauta, entitled The Deep Uncertainty Of Meaningful Work tells of a man wanting to embark on a big project, "But he kept putting off starting." Hmm. "He was like a million others who want to do meaningful work: write a book, fight for those who are powerless, create a startup.... We put off doing this work because of deep uncertainty" (emphasis mine). Yeah, that sounds familiar. Babauta says, "The key is to open up to the deep uncertainty of meaningful work."

The third message, from Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism, is about solitude, which he defines as "a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds." Solitude, it turns out, is necessary for creativity. No surprise.

Though not surprising, it's helpful to hear the following:

  • "all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone,"
  • "conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius"
  • "solitude is a prerequisite for original and creative thought" (Newport, 95-97).

The permission to create is ours to give. We can choose to open up to uncertainty rather than close down. And we need solitude, time away from the input of other minds, in order to be creative. Not a bad trinity of messages to received. They're worth keeping in mind and even more worth to act upon.

Mostly here, I'm writing to remind myself.

Solitude

Lately, even with all the writing I've been doing, I find that I'm not making much time for solitude. My job teaching at-risk kids doesn't allow for much solitude at school and at home my wife and I are raising two girls, but there are pockets of time at school and the girls are both in high school and move through the world with us but not needing our constant presence. It's not the commitments to other things that have kept me from solitude so much as the things I use to keep myself away from myself. Even reading lately I find my mind wandering to this or that thing I thing I ought to be doing.

Leo Babauta writes about "Why We Struggle To Make Time For Solitude" and it comes down to this feeling that we need to stay busy whatever that might mean. One level could be the busyness of our jobs. I know people who bring email home and work on presentations after dinner. I gave up bringing my job home but spend that time writing, so I'm not here to judge. I also had to quit my personal Twitter and all of Facebook because I too easily lost myself in the busyness there, hitting refresh and waiting for someone to start something. I've got the Washington Post and New York Times on my phone and flip to them all too often in order to burn about the latest insanity out in the world. I've lost hours at a time to YouTube watching videos I've seen before. All of this feels busy and necessary. Of course it's not.

Babauta asks: "How often do you take time to go out for an hourlong walk? To just sit out in nature doing nothing but contemplating and enjoying the silence?" In the margin (I print the articles and read with a pen) I wrote: Not often. I haven't listened to a record in ages. I've been playing records most every night as I write or look at nonsense online, but I haven't listened to one in at least a month. To listen requires sitting still and attending to the music. I've played records in the background, but every time I consider really listening to a record I instead get busy clearing my desk, answering email, or do some other thing that seems more important. I'm too afraid to sit and just listen.

Uncertainty and fear of the unknown lead us to keep busy according to Babauta. Sitting still, being in solitude, focusing only on one thing, meditating, or even just zoning out all seem vaguely dangerous. What if something goes undone? What if we forget something important? and, God forbid, What if someone sees us doing nothing? How will we explain that? Solitude can feel like a selfish indulgence, a guilty pleasure, or maybe just a strange and frightening notion, but it is none of these things. It is as necessary as the air we breathe.

That doesn't go only for writers like me or artists, photographers, actors, dancers, and so on. Solitude is necessary (and probably lacking) for every person walking this Earth. I'm equally sure that we are trained not to let ourselves get attached to solitude, to fear it, and to suspect that there is danger in being alone.

"And yet, this constant busyness and distraction is draining us. We are always on, always connected, always stimulated, always using energy." Babauta hits the mark again. Burnout, according to my dictionary, is "exhaustion of physical or emotional strength" and that's what the world offers if we buy into it. My teaching job begins at 7:40 and I work with kids straight through until at least 1:00 most days (sometimes longer) before I see a break, before I can have time alone to do nothing. That level of busyness and lack of solitude is toxic. That's why I can't continue in the job. But If I do the same thing to myself after leaving school, what kind of fool am I?

At the bottom of Babauta's article I wrote this: What if I go for a run not to get in shape or an an obligation to do miles but in order to invest in one hour (or even just half an hour) of solitude? I wrote that and then got dressed in cold weather running gear, took myself outside, left the phone in the kitchen, and jogged down the driveway. Almost an hour later I returned home feeling something I haven't in weeks. It wasn't just the way my body felt having run four miles, though that too was good. It was the relief of having been by myself and in no need to do anything but run. I didn't work on any problems, make any plans, or do anything but run and be alone. It wasn't scary either. In fact, I want more.

I'm going to go put an album. First, I'll tear up my to-do list then I'll switch off this computer. The furnace just came on, the dog is asleep on her bed, and there's nothing to do now but listen to what solitude and the album sing to me.