A few days ago, talking on the phone with a friend, I mentioned I was catching up on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (I’ve been a Rachel Bloom fan since that song appreciating Ray Bradbury (NSFW)), and that I’d been brought to tears more than once during the twelfth episode of season two, “Is Josh Free In Two Weeks?” (Spoilers at that link, duh.)
My friend was excited, because like me, she loves the show, and unlike me at the time, is all caught up and had been dying to talk about it. “Ooooh… what parts made you cry?”
That gave me pause.
I couldn’t remember the specific moments in the show that brought the waterworks even though I’d seen it, like, three days before, and I definitely remembered crying.
I glossed over it, saying I’d been extra emotional in the last week or so… but it made me think.
I have been more emotional lately. In the last two weeks or so, I’ve been more thoughtful, maybe a little more reflective, sometimes more melancholy, and for sure, crying more regularly and readily than I have for some time.
What’s been going on?
Self, Allow Me To (Re-)Introduce My… Self
For more than half a year, from late August of 2017 until very recently, I’ve barely kept my head above the turbulent surface of a sea of crisis and drama; some of it mine, some of it the splashing and flailing of others.
Family life-and-death medical stuff. Expensive car issues and resultant mobility restrictions. Financial issues. Relationship pressures. The holiday season. And then, starting at the very beginning of the new year, I took a full-time temporary position in an office setting after working from home for the last seven years.
I was spread gossamer thin; running on automatic; intently focused on being there for others while putting up a sociable, public-appropriate facade at the day job forty hours a week. Time to myself was uncommon and fleeting, and if I did find some quiet space, I was usually too mentally and physically spent to take advantage of it.
As someone who consistently scores “public extrovert / private introvert” on personality tests (I’m also INFJ on the Myers-Briggs matrix), I can — and did — hang in there for the most part, but over time, the situation became absolutely untenable. I was drained of, and detached from, my “best self.”
I sure did recognize the person I’d turned into, though, because I’ve been him before, and he’s no good for me or for the people I care about.
Then, in the second half of March, I found myself with two consecutive house- and pet-sitting bookings, with only a few days between each engagement.
I was already spending just two or three days a week in my own apartment due to certain logistics, so housesitting meant still more time away from my own familiar and energizing surroundings, and that brought its own variety of emotional strain.
During those house-sitting stints, from the moment I left work in the afternoon until the moment I returned the next morning, I was alone.
Due to her own travel plans and other circumstances, I didn’t even have much contact of any kind with the person I’d been seeing. During the evening hours and on the weekends (and for one delicious weekday when I played hooky from the day job) of those last two weeks of March, I had hours and hours and hours of alone time.
And something started to happen.
I found myself able to focus.
I entered periods of flow state while I worked on this very site, and on other creative stuff.
Heck, the fact that I was able to do creative stuff for myself, and not just for my clients, was evidence I was somehow finding energy I’d lacked.
I also found, as I tended to cats (first house) and dogs (second house) and generally spent quiet time watching animals be animals, that my thoughts were flowing, too, unbidden, and without direction or agenda.
Gradually, I didn’t so much come to certain conclusions as much as they simply presented themselves, along with suddenly obvious awareness of what I had to do.
A Difficult, Unassailable Course of Action
I had to manage my time and my energy such that I put myself, and my mental health, and so, my ability to be productive and creative, first in every way that was practical and possible.
I had to get back to myself.
That meant making some potentially fraught decisions.
Most difficult was taking a big step back from the person I’d been seeing several times a week for over half a year.
Although it makes me sound like a dead-eyed monster, I want to be clear: the decision itself wasn’t difficult for me. I was committed to do what was necessary to bring balance and sanity back into my life, and I was resolute and even eager to begin.
I was — I am — driven.
Unavoidably, though, I hurt a person I care about, and if I could have seen a way to proceed without causing her pain while still being true to myself and what I needed to be healthy, I would have taken it.
I also quit that full-time temporary job three weeks before my time there was scheduled to end. The gig, which I’d taken to infuse some predictable revenue into my freelance income, turned out to take too much time and too much energy to be worth the money I was making. In terms of mental health and financial health, I literally could not afford to continue working there.
All the same, I’d spent three months with that team; we’d gotten to know each other. Although I knew their jobs and workload would not be seriously affected by my absence, I had to grapple with some false feelings of obligation.
Learning to not honor false obligations is a big life lesson for me. I could write another post all about that. Maybe I will; maybe it will be an episode of Sonitotum.
Anyway, I quit. The parting was amicable; the door is open to return one day.
Saturday morning, April 7, 2017, I woke up in a quiet apartment, more alone than I’d been in months.
Front Only the Essential
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” — Henry David Thoreau
It didn’t take long before my relative state of solitude bore fruit that fell, like apples of Newtonian mental health, all around.
After all, I was abruptly, mostly, by myself. There wasn’t anything to “eat” but the fruit of my solitude.
Sure, there was still social media, and texts and messages and phone calls, but I found (I still find, writing this and hearing my phone buzz) myself recoiling from those intrusions. “I don’t want caramel on my apples unless I ask for it.”
(All right, all right, I will try to make that the end of the apple thing…)
Alone for extended periods of time, I began to hear my own thoughts in my own voice. I began to see my own self.
The silence forced me to hear me. The absence of others forced me to look in the mirror.
I think it’s telling that what we see when we look at a mirror is called a “reflection.”
It is, I submit, what we should do now and then. Reflect.
It wasn’t always pleasant. But it was educational.
Cleansing, too. The more time I had alone, the more it seemed as if I was sloughing off the thick, calloused skin I’d needed to be tough enough to handle all those external obligations.
The greatest gift of solitude has been the return of my vulnerability.
And so, pink, and raw, and often red-eyed and runny-nosed…
- I found myself facing loss and regret and sadness over things I’d assumed I was over, but in fact I’d only shunted aside to deal with immediate, external concerns.
- I found I could be honest with myself regarding my priorities and my commitments.
- I found myself missing and wanting to reconnect with people I see far too infrequently, and I’m taking steps to do that. (Seem contradictory to the solitude thing? Heck, even Thoreau knew to take the donut…)
- I found I had not just the time, but also the mental and emotional energy to return to my creative endeavors.
- I found myself crying over episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. By the way, I did finally recall what two scenes had done it for me, but I’m not going to share it here because Spoilers. If you have Netflix, go, watch the series from the beginning. Or buy it. It’s a brilliant and even important show.
Okay, You Needed Some Alone Time, Selznick. We Get It. Why Is Solitude Important For My Creative Writing Life?
Solitude must be a priority if you’re going to live a successful, balanced, and sane creative writing life.
And I don’t just mean the alone time you ask for when you’re actually writing.
I mean you must get away from others and simply be with you… long enough that the “you” you’re with really is the core you. Front the essential. Get to the root. Shuck off the husk you present to others.
Only then will you be vulnerable enough to connect to your most basic, authentic nature.
Only when you recognize the authentic in yourself can you present it back to the world through your writing.
Only by being authentic do we truly connect.
Walk it out with me: Vulnerability is the engine of connection.
If you’re cut off from your authentic self, your ability to communicate in any sense to anyone — not just in your writing — will be ineffective at best, and dishonest at worst.
If you want to be the best creator you can be… if you want to express your essential, most meaningful truths… you must take the time to be alone.
[bctt tweet=”Vulnerability is the engine of connection.” username=”mattselznick” prompt=”Tweet This To Your Friends!”]
Your Own Hard Choices
I’m a single guy with no kids who works from home. Easy for me to advise taking alone time, right?
Look, I know it might not be so simple for you. Everyone has their own set of obligations.
It might not be simple, logistically. But there’s nothing complicated about it, either.
Look at yourself.
Because even best-selling authors and TED speakers recognize that living a vulnerable and authentic life is a practice. You’re never done trying; there’s always room to do it better.
Just like your art, right?
Remember: The shaman who doesn’t use their gifts to help the tribe — healing, advising, gathering and transmitting history and lore — is just a weirdo muttering in the corner of the lodge, eating food they didn’t hunt.
Again, that’s probably a topic for another post… but the point here is: you have a responsibility to the world and to yourself to make your best art.
You know you don’t feel all that great if you’re not making your best art.
To make your best art and be your best self, you must be alone as often and for as long as it takes. Put another way: you cannot serve others effectively at the cost of serving yourself.
So make those hard choices. Start those difficult conversations. Adjust priorities. Adjust relationships.
[bctt tweet=”The shaman who doesn’t use their gifts to help the tribe is just a weirdo muttering in the corner of the lodge, eating food they didn’t hunt.” username=”mattselznick” prompt=”Tweet This To Your Friends!”]
The Goal is Balance
Please don’t think I’m advocating hermitage in any sense.
I’m advocating balance, and a measure of control over your own life when and where you can take it, despite how uncomfortable it might make you or others.
The discomfort you feel is fear metabolizing into growth.
The pain others might feel is their own. Manage their expectations; avoid making promises that might just be attempts to smooth away conflict.
Solitude is helping me remember myself and find my own level. Time alone is, ultimately, an investment in greater connection with my community of people that matter to me.
Starting with me.
You deserve that for yourself… and the world deserves the art that results.
[bctt tweet=”The discomfort you feel is fear metabolizing into growth.” username=”mattselznick” prompt=”Tweet This To Someone Who Needs It!”]
Not Alone In Being Alone
I’d love to know what you think about solitude and its role as a catalyst for self-awareness, vulnerability, authenticity, creativity, and, ultimately, community and connection. Let’s talk about it in the comments section!