Learn to Be Still: Why Ideas Need Solitude

A short time ago, I was having a conversation with friends. They are highly creative, but aren't writers. (Their words, not mine.)


Them: "I admire what you do. I'd love to write, but I don't think I have it in me to write everyday."


Me: "Oh, I don't write everyday."

It was a quick response, but a long thought. I don't write everyday, but I work on my writing projects daily. When I considered it more, I realized: if all I ever did was write, I may never get the story written.

I'd venture to guess the same is true for you.


Catching Lightbulbs by Fred Charles

If all we ever did was battle our way toward increasing word counts, when do we dedicate the time to allowing the story to take shape? When do we ponder how to dig our way out of the messy middle, or consider the true motive of that secondary character? When do we truly decide on that awesome idea of an ending? It probably isn’t when our fingers are going a mile a minute.


There's no serendipity to the fact that many great ideas happen in the shower. I used to wonder about the magic of that waterfall think-tank. Was it some other-worldly brain massager? Did ideas spawn faster with rising body temperature? Could it have been the ammonium lauryl sulfate seeping into my scalp? Nope, nope and heck nope. It's that I wasn’t distracted by anything else. I didn't need to think about how to wash my 'pits, so I could mindlessly (or so I thought) stand there and let my head wander to my work. Turns out, while I was washing, I was writing. Just not on paper: it was prep work.

Psychologist Ester Schaler Buchholz is the author of The Call of Solitude. Buchholz explains that the origin of “solitude’s" definition harkens back to the concept of completeness in one's own being. Further, solitude is essential for creativity, according to Buchholz. It is necessary to allow our subconscious to untangle problems and process information. In still times, we create original ideas and figure things out.

Sounds a lot like what happens during the writing process, eh?


Even Steve Wozniak agrees. Wozniak, Apple's co-founder has the following to say about solitude:


"...artists work best alone—best outside of corporate environments, best where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee."

We're given the freedom in these moments of solitude, of stillness, to pursue our creative impulses.

I'd argue that this approach doesn't mean removing all external distractors, which is why I keep hopping back and forth between "stillness" and "solitude." I've had excellent brainstorming sessions with undistracted creative partners. I've put on inspiring documentaries and used them to engage myself in my art, keeping bulleted lists of inspiration as I've watched. I've driven hundreds of miles by myself, soaking up the details of podcasts that make me itch to tumble out of the car and grab my laptop. The commonality isn't silence, and it isn't always even solitude. It's stillness.


David Lynch's Catching the Big Fish centers on this premise. In this book on ideas he writes,


"...ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you've got to go deeper."

In Lynch's book, this means expanding your consciousness, and thereby your creativity and artistic expression through transcendental meditation. Lynch describes how he lets his imagination loose through meditation, a process I find quite similar to showering. Go ahead, laugh, ridicule the fact that my daily lathers haven't yet produced a chevron-patterned Twin Peaks episode.


It has, however, produced this blog, and I’d say that’s pretty damn good.




You know the drill.