Solitude and the writer

Why do writers need silence and solitude?

Surely writers can write anywhere – in public places and in cafés, for example? Why would they even need to go to workshops or on writers’ retreats? Why can’t writers lock out their family and write in a room at home? Why do they complain when people make a noise and ‘disturb’ them?

Does contrived solitude work? Do writers produce more when they are alone, or when they are surrounded by others?

Your inner creative voice

Writers need just enough silence and solitude to listen to their inner creative voice. We have many inner voices and the worst, of course, is the one that beats you up for the things you haven’t done and should do. We’ve been taught to kill that voice. We’ve been taught to talk back to it and sort it out. Remember that book by Shad Helmstetter, What to say when you talk to your self? But, when slaughtering the bad voice, we need to take care not to lose the creative one. It’s down there somewhere, and your life as a writer is so much more difficult if you can’t hear it.

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Turning down the external volume

You go out, you have fun, you surround yourself with friends, you discuss, you argue, you tell jokes. Do all of that on a regular basis and there is way too much external noise. You will never hear the voice that has come up with a memory, an idea, a what-if, the description of a character, or an opening line to some story you haven’t thought of yet. So, you need to turn down the external volume and listen out for what that voice is saying.

Abu Dhabi, home to our Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop, is not the best of places to be a writer. There is something for you to see and do every evening of the week: a film screening, an exhibition opening, a musical performance, a play, a comedy show, a guest speaker, a debate, a dinner with friends. And after each of those activities, you are obliged to post photos of the event on social media to show that you were there along with the rest of the in-crowd, the people who are in the places that are trending.

But what about your writing? You won’t be hearing your inner creative voice with all that going on.

Solutions

There are various solutions. Some are drastic.

  • You could stop going out and do what you originally committed to do – write. At a writers’ conference, author Terry Pratchett once gave a plenary address entitled, ‘Why are you listening to me when you should be at home writing?’
  • You could give up writing. You may need to acknowledge that you are not sufficiently committed to writing to give up your social life and spend the necessary time drafting and re-drafting your work.
  • You could go to a writers’ workshop and find enough temporary focus to hear that voice and write for thirty or forty minutes. This can definitely get you started, though it is not a permanent solution. Your workshop will provide you with input and support, and it will give you that brief period of head space that you need to get some new ideas down on paper. To be a successful writer, however, you need to be able to write independently of your writers’ workshop. Did Dickens go to a writers’ workshop? Did Hemingway?

SolitudeDo not delude yourself. If you can’t write on your own – and that means being able to turn down the external volume to hear what’s in your head – you won’t be able to write in that expensive writers’ retreat or in that romantic garret in Paris.

 Listen

So, train yourself to be silent. Limit your socializing. If your socializing is full-time and your writing is supposed to be full-time, one of those is not going to work. Decide which it is to be. Find a time of day to think and write when there are fewer distractions, and let that creative voice filter through. Listen to it and then quickly write down everything it says.

If you can do this, you will never be short of ideas and you will become your own support system.

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Give me a cue #1

In our weekly meetings of The Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop, I give out a number of writing prompts that serve to stimulate the imagination and help the writers connect enough ideas to write a short piece during our session.

It may be that they write only a few lines inspired by the prompt, or that they come up with a piece of flash fiction, the initial draft of a short story, or even the premise for a novel. The important thing is just for them to let their minds loose around these cues and trust that a story or an idea will visit them. So, from the last workshop on Valentine’s Day, 14 February, 2018,  we have the following prompts:

Prompt 1 – First Love

The Italian writer Elena Ferrante is now writing a series of essays for The Guardian. The first of these is on the subject of First Love. As with all of these prompts, you’re advised to write your short piece first and then, out of interest, take a look at the source for that idea. Incidentally, Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym and, although the real writer has been unmasked, she still remains rather reclusive and inaccessible.

Ferrante

Prompt 2 – Dirty Money

Shooter Literary Magazine is inviting submissions for Issue #8, which should relate to the theme of Dirty Money. Check their website for further details. Submissions should be between 2,000 and 7,500 words.

ShooterLit Mag

 

Prompt 3 – The Accident

Watching men at work on the building site next to my house gave me the idea for this prompt. So, you might consider the lead up to an accident, the accident itself or the aftermath. On the other hand, think ‘out of the box’ about other kinds of accidents. Stretch your imagination.

Prompt 4 – There should be more than one word for ‘love.’

I ‘love’ this prompt. It leads us to consider the many kinds of love in our lives. The line comes from a British TV series called River, which is – on the surface – a crime drama but which, beneath the violent storyline, is actually a very moving love story. In the sixth and last episode of the first series, one of the characters quotes this line: ‘There should be more than one word for ‘love,’ and then goes on to list the many diverse manifestations of love.

Prompt 5 – A Nasty Taste

This prompt comes from the title of an article in The National newspaper. A celebrity restaurateur got less than brilliant reviews for the food served at his New York restaurant, hence the ‘Nasty Taste.’ In English, we also say that a bad experience has left us with A Nasty Taste, in our mouth, so the prompt can be interpreted in several different ways. I do in fact get a lot of my story ideas from newspapers. See if the same works for you.

What to write

When I give out prompts, workshop participants generally ask me two questions:

  • What should I write … a story, an essay … what?
  • How much should I write?

My response is, in effect, ‘I don’t know … because I can’t get inside your head. I can’t see what thoughts these prompts might trigger in your brain.’

Writing is about depending on your own inner thought processes. Too often would-be writers are still in thrall to their old childhood memories of the teachers who told them what to write and how much to write. Writers are proactive. It is important to remember that you won’t become a writer until you start to listen to what your own mind is telling you to write. Train yourself to listen to inner voices and to see both remembered and invented images. Can’t hear them? Can’t see them? Keep listening and keep looking. They will come.

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Twins, my latest children’s story, reached the bookshops in May. And here it is:

Anyone who writes about twins must surely have insider knowledge. So, do I have a twin brother or sister? No, I actually don’t have any brothers or sisters, though I have often wondered what it would have been like to have a sibling who looked just like me.

(Pause for thought.)

Oh, all right … probably not a good idea. One of me is enough.

The idea of twins, though, has fascinated writers through the centuries. There are look-alike twins, evil twins, estranged twins, conjoined twins, unlikely twins, mythological twins, in-an-iron-mask twins. So for a new twist on twin tales, read … Twins.

What kind of Twins are you expecting?

Tim is determined to win the Arkwright Student of the Year award and take his mother on the First Prize trip to Disneyland Paris.

He starts a Keep Arkwright Tidy campaign and everything is looking good until he and his friend William create mayhem in the park.

How can Tim win the prize now? Maybe – just maybe – he can blame his mystery twin brother …

Publisher: Helbling Languages – ISBN: 978 3 85272 293 1