I kind of miss my crappy commute from a decade ago. Even though DC denizens are a bunch of competitive assholes, including in traffic, that hour commute gave me time to myself. It’s one of the greatest gifts writers and other creatives can give themselves: time alone to just think.
Of course, writers aren’t the only ones who need time to themselves. But writers need it quite desperately, in a need-oxygen kind of way. I’m not talking about time to spend writing, but time to simply exist, without any visible, productive results. I’m talking about time to let your mind wander where it pleases.
By time alone, I also don’t mean binge-watching something, or listening to a podcast, or even reading/listening to a book. None of those are inherently bad, mind you. They can be awesome, actually. But those activities don’t belong in your designated time alone.
Time to yourself, without digital or physical friends, will fill your inspiration/idea well. Here’s what restores and invigorates many writers, including me:
- Going alone for a leisurely walk somewhere new, where there are lots of interesting things to notice;
- Sitting by a lake or creek, and listening to the water and wildlife sounds;
- Hanging out on a porch, feet propped up and drink at hand, watching the world go by;
- Hanging out on a park bench, doing the same;
- Going to an exhibit by yourself, at your own pace, and noticing what draws your interest;
- Going to a coffee shop, book store, mall, etc. to people watch (OK, eavesdrop!); or
- Going to an art store, antique store, hardware store, boutique, or anywhere that the merchandise itself fascinates and excites you. Caveat: Just browse, ooooh, and aaaaah; no buying.
Sounds like a horrible waste of time, doesn’t it? How can you possibly take even 20 minutes for something like this, when your to-do list has a to-do list?
It’s the only way to hear yourself and what you think and feel, that’s how. Like that feeling of calm energy that comes after meditating, taking alone time gives back far more than the minutes it takes. By paying attention to your own unique interests and pulls, you connect more with your wellspring of inspiration. I don’t know anyone who can’t use more of that.
But Does It Work?
Here’s a way to see if this helps you. Rate your current energy level on that 1 to 10 scale. Then, 3 times this week, take at least 20 minutes to be alone and let your mind wander. Set your phone so that only true potential emergencies (children, parents, spouse, etc.) will alert.
[NOTE: Overbearing, anxious clients, bosses, and coworkers are NOT on this list. As a doctor friend of mine says, this is one of those “unless there’s arterial bleeding, they will live without you for a few minutes” boundaries.]
After a week, rate your level of energy for the past week. Did you notice any improvement, for any amount of time? Decline? Stasis?
If you didn’t see improvement, vary your alone-time activity, and the length of time you spend alone. Play with this tool until you feel some improvement. Or simply keep taking alone time a few times a week for 3 weeks, whichever is first.
Improvement doesn’t mean you suddenly have the inspiration to write your novel daily—though that would be fantastic! Improvement means you’re feeling a bit more curious, or you had a good idea for something (work or personal), or you maybe got some special pens and paper and are secretly plotting time to use them.
Writing and all other creative endeavors are marathons, not sprints. Giving yourself the gift of alone time is part of your ongoing training. The more time you can spend alone and hear your thoughts, and notice lots of details around you, the better your writing and creativity will get.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who left law by getting a job writing and editing for a legal publication. She liked the publishing industry enough to hang around it for a decade or so. In addition to writing her blog, she also coaches lawyers who want to find a way to express their creative gifts, whether in their work or in their lives. Email her at email@example.com if you’d like help with your own creative journey.