Deb Molly Has Forgotten How to Be Alone

2012 Debutante Molly BackesI worry about us.

More specifically, I worry about me, but I’m certain I’m not alone in this. I don’t think it’s just me, you guys. I think it’s our generation — our culture — and it’s only getting worse.

We’ve forgotten how to be quiet. We’ve forgotten how to be alone.

Ten years ago — even five years ago — if I was meeting a friend for coffee and she was late, I would sip my latte, look around the cafe, idly listen to other people’s conversations, pull out my journal and write for a few minutes. Today? Left alone for more than 15 seconds, I pull out my phone, text people, check my email, update Twitter: “Meeting @bestfriend at @coffeehouse!”

Often, I don’t even have my journal with me, a fact that would have made my 21-year-old self shudder in horror. She carried her journal everywhere, and wrote in it at every opportunity: on the bus, in the cafe, on a bench after class, alone in a diner. She used her journal as a way to connect with her own thoughts, to check in with herself, to mull over stories she was working on and jot down images, questions, fragments of sentences and verse that came to her in moments of quiet.

Ten years ago, I used to walk between 2.5 and 5 miles a day, every day, without an ipod or cell phone. I paid attention to the streets and the houses and the way the light on the trees changed from day to day, season to season. I wrote poetry in my head, untangled scenes, relived conversations. Wondered. Noticed.

Now, the idea of taking an hour to do nothing but walk makes me jittery. “What a waste of time,” I think, even though I honestly believe otherwise. Well, the artist in me believes an hour-long walk isn’t a waste of time; my internet-addled self spends the ten-minute walk home from work mentally tweeting every. single. thought. Truly, it’s exhausting.

Recently I’ve decided to rededicate myself to old-fashioned journal writing, because my head has become scattered and jumpy and utterly unable to focus. Journaling pushes me to focus, to connect with myself and my own mind, and it doesn’t afford me an easy escape in the form of social networking or research or email or any of the other carrots the internet dangles in front of my easily (and willingly!) distracted mind.

Writing is hard. Being alone with one’s own thoughts is hard. Being quiet is hard. The internet is easy, and validating, and distracting. It doesn’t ask you to confront your deepest fears and most painful memories. It doesn’t force you to be honest with yourself. It doesn’t ask anything of you, really. It’s the all singing, all dancing, constantly updated, constantly moving show of lights and colors and witticisms in 140 characters.

I believe that our subconscious minds are much smarter than our conscious minds. After all, our subconscious minds build our dreams for us, build them by pulling together disparate images and people and moments, by creating a language of strange imagery and metaphor in order to help us gain greater understanding of the things we think about, our concerns and fears and wishes. Isn’t this our job as writers, as well? I believe the best writing comes from our subconscious — it percolates there, beneath the surface, and emerges as inspiration. The trick is that we must step out of our own way in order to access it — must not let the conscious mind interrupt with its nervous chatter — and the only way to do so is to be quiet. To focus. To be alone with our own thoughts.

In the book Now Write! Katherine A. Vaz proposes what she calls a “Tabula Rasa Experiment”:

Spend an entire twenty-four hours (a whole weekend if you can) in “silence” and “waiting upon.” Don’t read, don’t watch TV, don’t flip through magazines. Don’t clutter your brain. Avoid busywork. Some people are seized with a manic desire to clean their house, straighten their files, or cook rather than be alone with their minds and hearts. Note what your impulse is to do, and return to a sense of calm and quiet and inaction. You don’t have to take a vow of perfect silence or lie in a darkened room. Go ahead an chat with your roommate. Maybe listen to some music. Don’t nap. This is wakefulness. Go for a walk or a swim, but don’t make this an excuse to run errands or go sightseeing or shopping.

Although you should refrain from plotting or writing, jot notes on what comes up for you. Images, memories, odd bits of speech, curious abstractions. See what wells up: pictures and sounds, or notes dictating measures to you of a music that’s purely your own.

I shared this passage with my students, and we all agreed that the proposition was completely terrifying. Which — as my 21 year old self would remind me — means it’s something I should probably at least try. And if 24 hours or a whole weekend is too much to spend dreaming and moodling, then at least I can make an effort to make more time in my day for mindfulness. To unplug more often, on purpose. To spend an hour lying in the hammock, watching the clouds. To lie quiet, without reading, in bed before falling asleep. To sit in that cafe alone, without pulling out my phone, and idly eavesdrop before pulling out my journal to write.

I’ll re-teach myself how to be quiet, and how to listen to myself. I’ll relearn how to be alone.

9 thoughts on “Deb Molly Has Forgotten How to Be Alone

  1. I totally get where you’re coming from, Molly. I’m am not a journaller, but I do need that quiet of walking or laying in the bath to let my subconscious percolate. This relates a lot to Erika’s post from yesterday about stepping away to give your brain space to fill in the gaps.

    • We talk a lot about BIC and sitting down every day to do the work, but the imagining time is important too! I just have to be honest with myself about what’s actually “imagining time” — shopping on etsy.com? not so much.

  2. I love this post. I think this is why my best ideas come to me while I’m in the shower. Lord help me if they ever invent a waterproof iphone case… And if it already exists, please please don’t send me a link!!!

  3. Molly, this is spot on. I think about this, worry about this, all the time. And having a baby has made me consider the problem with a new sense of urgency. When I’m with her, I want to be WITH her. When I’m writing, I want to be writing. We’ve lost the ability to do one thing at a time.

  4. I miss being quiet so very much. I used to walk around our farm in summer just *noticing* things as a kid, or sitting on the couch and stare out the window in the winter. I used to sit in the car while my parents drove and look out and think about things. I miss it and I don’t even know how one gets back to that, in a world like the one in which I currently live. A sad thing, I guess.

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