Possibly The Most Important Writing Skill You’ll Ever Learn
“My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people.”
~ Patricia Highsmith
Whether writing persuasive marketing copy or the next bestselling novel, all writers need to nurture a deep understanding of people and what makes them tick. And understanding other people is only possible once you understand yourself. But self-knowledge needs resources that are scarce in the modern world: silence, solitude, and time.
To slay distraction, sharpen your focus, and achieve your writing goals, you need to create an abundance of all three. The bad news is, for most of us it’s difficult. The good news is that with the right approach, persistence, and flexibility, you can still do it.
I’ve written here about de-digitizing your life and learning to do what computer science professor and author, Cal Newport, calls deep work. But for writers, that’s only one aspect of tackling a more pervasive problem we face in today’s world. The problem of finding the space to fulfill the ancient call to self-knowledge.
Social noise vs. self-discovery
We live in the age of hyper-connectivity. The Internet and the mobile telephone — which has become a pocket-sized computer — facilitate every dimension of our lives. We can communicate worldwide and have access to information from every corner of the globe.
Work and leisure are both increasingly digitized. Writers have reaped tremendous benefits from the Internet: it improves research, visibility, brand awareness, and audience outreach beyond anything we imagined before the technology boom in the 90s. But it’s not all a proverbial bed of roses. The current debate around issues of data collection, privacy, misinformation, and political interference is serious, complex, and urgent. And we’re only just recognizing the psychological impacts the Internet has on learning, concentration, and mental health.
In this new age of hyper-connectivity, we’re bombarded with an infinite scroll of high-speed information, social noise, and the pressure to communicate, respond, and make ourselves accessible 24/7. We have little time to think. We’re constantly in touch with other people and often unfiltered external influences. But have we lost touch with ourselves?
No-one relishes the idea of loneliness. In fact, scientific research has shown beyond doubt that loneliness can lead to devastating negative impacts on mental and physical well-being. But loneliness and solitude aren’t synonymous. Nor does silence and inactivity necessarily lead to boredom.
Disconnect to connect
In fact, we need to disconnect, switch off, and unplug once in a while; to be still; to retreat from the constant drive toward higher productivity and more efficient action. It’s the only way to slow down the clock and free up time for reflection, contemplation, and deep thought.
As writers, we need that opportunity to listen to ourselves and touch base with our thoughts, feelings, and imagination. Without self-knowledge, we risk running our creativity dry. As it becomes ever harder to cut through the noise and distractions, we’re less likely to have access to that inner spark of genius which inspires our best, most original work; and we’re more likely to fall back on re-framing old, worn-out ideas.
These days entertainment trumps enlightenment. In our downtime, we do everything possible to lose ourselves in zappy, colorful distractions. We crave constant sensory stimulation. If we have nothing to do, we’re anxious, bored, or asleep.
According to the etymology dictionary, the word ‘entertainment’ used to mean ‘holding something in the mind’. Much closer in origin to the idea of quiet contemplation, meditation, and enlightenment or self-realization. Which is why the best writers, poets, musicians, and artists often seek solitude and seclusion; to nurture the creative seeds sown in their minds.
But the other job writers must do is to acknowledge, explore, and bring to light the painful, challenging, disturbing aspects of human existence. Why? To enrich the lives of others with understanding, and from understanding to offer the possibility of healing. Filling your consciousness with noise and flash makes that deep inner journey all but impossible.
“…love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
Accepting the call to adventure
We’re often afraid of silence, solitude and the steady, inexorable passing of time. We shy away from confronting the uncertainties and absurdities of existence; of diving into the deep waters of memory; listening to the inner voice; tasting the bitterness of past failures; touching the void.
But to be the best writers that we can be, we must be heroic. It’s our duty to grasp the hilt of that double-edged sword and learn to wield it: to deepen our self-knowledge; both in the darkness of inner suffering and the light of creative joy. We owe it to ourselves and our readers to answer the call to adventure and set out on the inner quest.
At first, when you disconnect from the outer world of action and social noise, you may feel lonely and afraid. But you must face that fear as it’s only the fear of the unknown. Sit with it, look it in the eye, be patient, and the fear will pass. The tempest of thought will calm, the waters of your mind become still. And then you can listen to yourself and learn that deep inner knowledge silence alone can communicate.
“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore…”
~ Lord Byron
Start out in solitude today
You can start today. Find just five or ten minutes alone in silence. Do nothing. Just breathe and observe your thoughts and feelings. Don’t judge yourself, just look and see, listen and hear. You’re not trying to achieve any special state of mind or experience. All you need do is stop doing and allow yourself to be.
If you can find those few minutes every day, you’ll have made a splendid start. Stick with it and you’ll experience a change in the depth and quality of those times. Fix a regular appointment with yourself at the same time each day.
Eventually, you might give up the time you spend scrolling through your social media, gaming, watching the TV, or seeking other less mindful entertainments, and dedicate that time to the inner journey of self-knowledge.
The most important writing skill you’ll ever learn
This is the most important writing skill you’ll ever learn. Why? Because your best writing — whatever your aims and genre — will always be that which springs from your unique perspective, your original ‘take’ on the theme or subject of your discourse. Your most successful writing will always be that which touches something true in your readers, sparking deep human recognition.
And to make that inner connection with your unique creative genius and with the deep human experience for which your readers crave, you must disconnect from all the external noise; you must find time for silence and solitude.
“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
~ Henry David Thoreaux
In this article, I share with you my personal journey toward digital minimalism and how it has improved my writing and could improve yours: