Living stories together, writing alone

by Kristin on May 31, 2011

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by ideowl

I’ve been busy lately—too busy to comment on my favorite blogs or get caught up in discussions and debates on Twitter. But there are certain topics I can’t resist, and my long-time friend Jen (@jenluit) raised one of them on Twitter last week, with this tweet:

Today I’m thinking about community and isolation. I know which I prefer. Do you?

Community and isolation. Extroverted and introverted. Collaboration and solitude. So many foundational aspects of my personality and key moments in my life have pivoted on these ideas, and on my need for community:

The day I decided to quit my job and “go freelance,” but was terrified at the thought of working alone, day after day.

The counseling session when I finally understood the true definitions of “introvert” and “extrovert,” and saw for the first time what’s at the heart of who I am, and what was at the root of my struggling marriage.

When I realized that a sign of inching toward depression, for me, is a withdrawing from people.

The moment I knew I needed to leave my marriage—that the fear continuing down that road was greater than my very real fear of parenting alone.

The many evenings after my divorce that taught me the difference between “alone” and “lonely” (I was more alone than ever, but less lonely than I had been in my marriage).

Writing requires both: together and alone

Since those discoveries, I’ve settled into what feels like a healthier middle ground. I still crave community and conversation, but I value time alone each day. I still turn to people and conversation to energize me, to problem-solve, and to generate ideas and share stories, but without quiet time on my own, those ideas don’t get processed, and the stories don’t get told.

Which is what writing is all about. That’s where the Twitter discussion about community and isolation with @jenluit and @shawnsmucker turned—to the topic of writing, as a mostly solitary act. Is our writing fed by interactions with others or quiet time to ponder ideas? Here’s how I summed up my thoughts, in three tweets:

it’s the introvert/extrovert question—knowing which setting helps you think, problem-solve & re-charge.

I’m sure we’re all drawn to both, but for most people one or the other is best at recharging us. for me, it’s community.

it seems like you have to *live* the stories with others, then retreat so you can tell them/write them.

Not surprisingly it’s a “both-and” situation for most people. It’s ironic that I began this post by saying I’ve been “too busy” for conversation. This is exactly the conundrum I so often face: The more the deadlines pile up, the less time I have for lunches with friends and conversations on Twitter, but then the more empty, distracted, and unable to focus on the deadlines I become. In other words, withdrawing from community does not help me get more done, but engaging in community is such a weakness for me that it can become a black hole.

Finding your sweet spot

Like in most of life, the trick is knowing how and when to balance it. How much solitary writing time do you need to get anything done? How long can you go without a good conversation before your mind starts to turn in on itself? How do you cultivate and grow the part of you that’s less natural, less demanding? What are the red flags for you—the signs that indicate you might be veering too far in one direction or the other? And if you’re not writing or creating in an obvious way like music, writing or art, what other aspects of your life are impacted by your need for community and/or isolation?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Be sure to also read Jen’s post yesterday on the topic, and Shawn’s post tomorrow—they’re both writers and thinkers I greatly admire, and I’m thankful they’re part of my community.

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  • Cindy Holman

    Great article – I think I’m an introvert – love to be alone and recharge – love to write and think by myself – too much of people – is energy draining for me – instead of energy creating. I do love wonderful comment threads and engaging in online chatter like everyone else – have only a few intimate friends in real life – but in a group I might seem warm and fun loving. Still I would retreat to my home and my husband with long periods writing, reading and thinking if I had what I prefer all the time. I think my husband would call me an energetic and outgoing introvert.

  • Shawn Smucker

    Well written, Kristin. Taking these little thoughts on Twitter and expounding on them is such an interesting exercise. 140 to Infinity, or something like that.

    “Is our writing fed by interactions with others or quiet time to ponder ideas?” That’s the question, isn’t it? I won’t go into it now – I’m looking forward to contributing to this conversation tomorrow.

  • Jennifer

    What a great continuation of our discussion. I am giggling at how similar and different we are. I will be curious to see if anyone takes a different approach, that more of one than the other benefits the person. I also appreciate the natural flow of this topic and how its many tiny threads can be followed in so many fun little off-road expeditions. It’s not just an idea that relates to writers or other creators. It is important for all of us. Will be checking back later to read others’ thoughts.

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  • Nicole

    Thanks Kristin. I was pondering this same thing today. As a tried-and-true extrovert, I’ve discovered since becoming a mother a deep need to be alone. And I find that when I’m out of balance, I tend to not see people with the same grace and compassion I usually have. So that’s my warning sign. I’m needing to find more of that time alone this summer, and I fear my FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) often overrules the still small voice that needs me to be alone to be heard.

  • Meredith

    I love this post because I think it cuts right to the heart of what I struggle most with. I am, hands down, an introvert and I tend to keep to myself more than I probably should, especially when I know I have things I want to write or get down. (For instance, I also write a book blog, which is more isolating than my personal blog because reading, too, is a solitary activity for the most part.)

    But like you mention, I’ve discovered a need for balance. I have to remind myself to get out and engage with the people around me because it’s far too easy for me to stay by myself. And I’ve also found that when I do engage more, my writing is better and more focused – I find that I end up maximizing my time better (both my “people” time and my “alone” time) when I know I need to balance both things.

  • Ray Hollenbach

    Eugene Peterson uses the phrase, “the unforced rhythms of grace,” which could be applied to many things, but for me exemplifies the undulation of community and solitude.

    Each day I feel the rhythm of community and solitude: I prefer to be alone early in the morning and late at night, while the vast portion of each day doesn’t feel right unless I share it with others.

    Week in and week out my communities of family and work seem to thrive on the interplay between both. My wife and I are very comfortable giving each other space, but we also treasure time–unhurried time–together. The same for my friends and co-workers: how sad it would be to have no one to share our discoveries with, yet what would we discover unless we take time to think and explore?

    Finally: I’ve grown comfortable in alone times because I’ve discovered His presence and still, small voice in such times. He never intrudes, but he’s always close.

  • Roxanne

    An interesting discussion. I am an introvert, through and through. And, I suppose I do spend more time alone than I should. For me, reading and writing go hand in hand, and they’re both quite solitary. Innately, balance doesn’t come easy for me, so yes, the challenge for me is making a concerted effort to spend time with others.

  • HopefulLeigh

    The longer I’ve been a social worker, the more I’ve realized how introverted I’ve become. I never needed peace and quiet the way I have after a long day at work. But this is not me! I love being with people, listening to their stories, cracking up over silly humor, bouncing ideas off of one another. So, like you realizing that withdrawing from people is symptomatic of depression, I’ve realized that I don’t like the person I’ve become in my job. I feel most alive when I’m writing and creating. This tends to happen in the solitude of my home but there’s something to be said about writing in a coffee house, a community of freelancers. Now with the changes ahead, it’ll be even more important for me to find a balance between work and community. I’m looking forward to it!

  • Kristin T.

    Cindy, I think an “energetic and outgoing introvert” would be a great combination. Sometimes I feel like a worn-out extrovert, which is tough! :) Thanks for sharing your personal experience with this.

    Shawn, Twitter has served up some great blog post fodder for me. I’m thankful we got into this conversation, and I’m looking forward to your post! I promise I won’t slam your solitude stance too much. :)

    Jennifer, I love how you put this: “I also appreciate the natural flow of this topic and how its many tiny threads can be followed in so many fun little off-road expeditions.” Thanks for being an asker of questions and a bringer-together of people and good ideas. You’re absolutely right about this issue applying to so many people and aspects of life. Just today someone on Twitter was mentioning the challenges of parenting as an introvert.

    Nicole, you touched on so many interesting things in that brief comment, I think you should write a blog post about it! I can really relate to this red flag: “I find that when I’m out of balance, I tend to not see people with the same grace and compassion I usually have.” And that FOMO? I’ve been there plenty, too. Finally that’s beginning to mellow in me (yes, even in the age of Facebook!).

    Meredith, good point about reading being a mostly solitary act, too. Maybe that explains why I love book clubs—I love to read, but I want to talk about it, and process what I’ve read with others. (I also hated practicing piano and viola on my own, but loved playing in a string quartet. It all makes sense to me now.) This is perceptive: “…when I do engage more, my writing is better and more focused.” You make such good observations about yourself, that I’m sure you’re on the right track when it comes to achieving balance.

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  • Jen

    I’ve always known I’m an introvert… I was quite the loner when I was a kid, and I remember feeling frustrated because I felt so awkward in social situations and thought there was something wrong with me. Now that I’m older, I’ve really come to embrace the introvert thing. I recognize that I do need people and community, but too much socializing is draining, and I know it’s okay to say no to things when I sense it’s time for some downtime. In fact, time alone is a necessity… my red flag is when every single person I come in contact with is starting to annoy me. :)

    I definitely struggle with the “living stories together” part… finding the balance between getting my needed alone time (and yes, writing time!) and actually living life so I’ll have something worth writing about.

  • Kristin T.

    Ray, I haven’t read much Eugene Peterson, but he’s a favorite of my mom’s, and I love this idea of “unforced rhythms of grace.” When I examine my own rhythms, I find they’re much less predictable and structured–each day is its own animal. The important thing, as I think you’re saying, is to learn to go with the flow, as long as the stronger currents don’t carry you off too far in one direction or the other.

    Roxanne, thanks for sharing your experience. Your comment made me think about how odd it is that an extrovert like me would love reading and writing so much. They seem much better suited to an introvert like you! But the more I thought about reading, in particular, the more I realized that books and their characters were my companions when I was young. Do you feel like that? Writing does seem more solitary–maybe I should write fiction so I can create my own community of characters. :)

    HopefulLeigh, being a social worker has to be an extremely draining job. I would think it would be easy to get tired of people in all the wrong ways rather than energized by them in the right ways. At the end of the day you don’t want to be around people but you also don’t have your extrovert needs met! It sounds like you’re very self-aware and you’re making important changes. I hope it all goes well and you find a vocation that feels more like you.

    Jen, I felt awkward in many social situations when I was a kid, too, even though I desperately wanted to act on the outside as outgoing as I felt on the inside! I guess a certain amount of that is pretty normal for kids. I love what you said about getting older, and embracing who you are. Doesn’t it feel good to finally get comfortable in your own skin, and to stop feeling guilty that you’re not more like someone else? To be able to know yourself and take care of yourself is a wonderful thing.

  • Michael

    As I mentioned on Shawn’s post: You may also be interested in the work of Henri Nouwen who notes that solitude is congruent with community. He makes the distinction between being lonely and aloneness. The aloneness of solitude still keeps us in touch with the core of community found in our relationship with God.

    I also understand the challenges you describe of a bad marriage and divorce. That definitely falls in the lonely category and is much different (and terrible) in comparison to the aloneness Nouwen describes.

  • The Modern Gal

    There’s that word again, the one that’s so important to me — balance. I am definitely an introvert to the core, and I enjoy alone time but I have found that when alone time gets forced on me too frequently, then I do feel isolated. Still, I usually have to nudge myself a bit to reach out to others.

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