Success in Solitude

I come from a family of producers (not the Matthew Broderick kind). My dad has built dozens of houses, more cabinet sets than I can recount, and my mom makes quilts for fun (many of which she gives away), and is always experimenting with incredible recipes, making great and even gourmet quality food on a regular basis.

These are exceptional qualities, but for someone like me, they also presented complications. You see, through the amazing things that they made, I started to believe that greatness needed to be concrete. This is something I struggled with when I was in college, when my accomplishments were reading 8-10 Supreme Court cases a night (with dissents), remembering the reason for the decisions, and merging that with the intense Shakespeare character development, setting, plot points, structure, and meaning of a play a day.

This kind of thinking permeates the writing community as well. There are writing trackers and revision trackers and editing trackers. There are events put on my NaNoWriMo, sprinting challenges all over Twitter, 1k, 5k, and even 10k challenges. These are all very good, and I have participated in and utilized nearly all of them. It is through integrating these kinds of things that we can maximize our BIC-HOK (butt-in-chair hands-on-keyboard) efforts. These are the kinds of skills that allow writers to hit deadlines, to finish books, and to get them published.

And yet.

Even though I’m a competitive person

Even though I love the feeling of nailing a goal

Even though I will pump my hands in the air, and do a chair dance, and get a celebratory high five from my husband and a sticker/gif parade in Facebook messenger from my critique partners…

These aren’t the moments that I seek after as a writer.

In fact, these have been moments that have often thrown me off my writing game almost more than anything else (exceptions being a couple really hard rejections).

The moments that I seek after look a bit more like this:

Philosopher in Meditation by Rembrandt

The work here isn’t tangible. It isn’t something that will present me with a certificate, bragging rights, or that I can even track in regards to progression from day to day.

But after a critique, edit notes, spitballing ideas, or in-depth research, sitting in solitude has time and again proven itself as the means through which I am able to ground myself, my characters, my setting, my ideas into a place where I can step out of the whirlwind of what others think and create my story.

It can also be one of the most difficult things to secure for myself. The following are a couple techniques I have incorporated to have success in solitude.

1. Jot ideas down the old fashioned way. 

Many studies have shown that writing things down by hand helps people learn better, so it makes sense to implement this practice when I’m trying to learn about the characters, setting, plot, arcs I need to understand better to create better and before I jump in to fix them.

2. Don’t be afraid to stare at a wall. 

This probably isn’t a public place sort of exercise – people keep interrupting to ask if you are okay. This is a way to let everything in your mind shift around, back and forth, until settling on a place that feels almost right. I let the various ways the scenario COULD work play out in my mind, hitting pause and rewind as soon as I realize THAT way won’t work. Should the character run away? Stay and fight for what they want? What would happen to that character if they do? If they don’t? Who else would be impacted by THAT decision?

3. Do something mindless. 

I often joke that I can’t cut my hair because my best ideas come when I’m washing my hair or blowing it dry. It is when I am doing a task that I can complete on auto-pilot, that allows my mind to wander, but still merges some mindless physical activity. I know someone who is inspired by mowing a lawn and another who finds great ideas in a sink full of dishes.

4. Stop Counting, Measuring & Comparing. 

When I am in this phase, I scroll right on by the people who are celebrating their concrete accomplishments. I’m thrilled for them, but not in the head space where I can internalize what they’ve done. Again, I’m competitive so it is easy to feel like I’m falling behind when someone who signed with an agent the same week I did has a book deal, has edits, is “squeeing” over cover concept ideas. I am genuinely happy for these people, and I may even write down a note to go back and celebrate with them, but I can’t engage when in solitary mode. That time must be reserved for me, my story, my ideas, my timeline.

5. Create a Timeline. 

This seems to be in direct competition with what I just said, but the bottom line is I can make myself crazy diving deeper into my mind if I don’t set a time within which I need to have things sorted. I have had some experience with this and know that I usually need about a week of thinking, two to three days of researching, jotting, visualizing, rethinking, and then I need to start organizing my thoughts in some tangible manner. I will almost always transfer these notes into a digital form for easy access later, but the creation works really well for me on post-it notes. If an idea is bad? Rip it up and throw it away. Timeline funky? Pull up the post-its and rearrange them in a way that makes more sense. Ginormous hole in desired emotional arc? See what happens when I lengthen or tighten the time table, the character connections, etc. 
Just as a philosopher’s ideas only gain value in the world after they have been shared, the things I’m thinking through need to go through this process again and again. But fighting against the tendency to simply and always produce has allowed me the opportunity to create work I’m proud of with a significantly higher return on investment than constantly and continually producing ever has. 


Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

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