"If you want to write, being alone with yourself is a must, " says Nihat Gandhi.
Mirza Ghalib wrote: aate hain ghaib se yeh mazameen khyal mein/Ghalib sareer khama nawaa-e-sarosh hai. (Inspiration descends from the unseen dimension/Ghalib merely scribbles what the angels dictate.)
Ghalib believed his verses were inspired kalaam. They descended through the faculty of imagination; from ghaib, the unseen dimension. How can writers awaken that ghaibi muse, the intuitive dimension of our creativity? One of the best ways is by cultivating intentional solitude. Solitude is a writer’s most trusted muse. So why don’t we seek solitude more actively and less guiltily? Whatever your time and space constraints, if you want to write, being alone with yourself is a must. Hemmingway said, “Writing at its best is a solitary life.” A few solitary hours are sometimes enough to tap into below-the-conscious mind. Advice to all beginning writers — lay aside your guilt. Beg, borrow, snatch solitude from your busyness. Go on a retreat or create a retreat in the home — hang a DO NOT DISTURB sign — and recede to a corner where you can be quiet.
For the next few months, I’m fortunate to be in a quiet corner of the world at the Krishnamurti Foundation, where I will live, study and write in relative solitude. But here too, I observe a weekly day of silence because I am never quite alone. I keep getting pulled into conversations or distractions such as the Internet and the phone. But on my day of silence, I am truly silent. My phone is silent. I eat in silence. I read, write or revise what I have already written or I just wait for I don’t know what. I don’t gauge my productivity from the number of words. I used to pounce on myself at the end of a silent writing day, but I am mellower now. Everything done in the service of one’s calling is important. My silence is important, my writing is, reading is, even waiting is. Intentional silence frees me from the pressure to indulge in niceties. I greet people with a nod and move on. This shutting down opens the gates to an inner relaxation and spaciousness. I come home to myself.
I consider writing demanding work requiring ruthless self-discipline but I don’t have to show up to an office every morning to write eight hours a day. Many of you have daily commutes to work and/or are heavily involved in your familial responsibilities, so an entire day’s silence is out of the question. But when you are in silence, are you silent inwardly? The 14th century Persian Sufi poet, Hafiz Shirazi, wrote, “I felt in need of a great pilgrimage so I sat still for three days.” Can you sit still for three days? Can you request time away from family and friends as compensation for time you do spend with them? If you can’t get a whole day, aim for half a day. If you can’t get half a day, settle for a few hours. If you are afflicted with the writer’s creative restlessness, you’ll have to wander disconsolately till you arrive at your solitude.
You’ll have to find ways of dodging solitude-sabotaging society — getting up early, staying up late, going for solitary walks, taking one day or weeks off from work, working part-time, saying ‘no’ to time-guzzling friends and technology. And simplifying your lifestyle. Voluntary simplicity opens up more time and space for writing — keeping your needs to a minimum means less time spent meeting those needs. If you eat simply and dress simply, you spend less time shopping for food and clothes and spend less money.
Simplifying your socialising frees up more time for yourself. You don’t stop socialising, you just socialise selectively. You meet friends and relatives after, not before, writing time. This might sound selfish, but the world’s non-writers who devour our solitude over endless cups of tea and chats aren’t selfless either.
Creativity is a gift of intuition, but it doesn’t come free. It’s a difficult-to-avail gift and you have to reach a state of inner solitude to receive it. You could be alone in a cave, but your mind could be a can of worms. The average human brain has as many neurons as there are stars in the Milky Way — a staggering hundred billion. At any moment, thousands of neurons are communicating with thousands of other neurons, making it difficult to control the brain’s internal chatter. Want to know how chatty your mind is? Close your eyes and count how many thoughts arise in one minute. If your mental chatter is uncontrollable, you are not in solitude.
Meditation tames the monkey mind. A simple way to meditate is to observe your breath till the mental chatter subsides and you arrive at a state of inner stillness. Find a how-to book in the self-help section of bookshops, and the internet, of course, is teeming with meditation advice.
Some of us also have an underlying, quiet fear of prolonged solitude. Accusations from the gregarious are scary. Are you turning into a loner? A loony? The threat of social isolation or boredom looms large. Inayat Khan, the Sufi musician and writer, writing almost a century ago, warned of the human tendency to prioritise the outer world over and above the needs of the inner: “If we respond to the things of the earth so much that our whole life becomes absorbed in worldly things, then it is quite natural that we should not respond to those riches which are within us.” Solitude helps us respond to the riches within. It enriches the heart and mind if sought with persistence. Worldly things in Inayat Khan’s era didn’t include smart phones and iPads and 24/7 Internet connectivity. The need to consciously minimise dependence on worldly things becomes even more relevant today because detachment is harder.
Rilke wrote a series of letters explaining the importance of exploring what Inayat Khan called the ‘riches within’ to a young, aspiring poet. Rilke emphasised ‘turning-within’ to waylay worries, doubts, and fears. Fears about failure or success intensify internal noise. Rilke’s letters were collected in a book called Letters to a Young Poet. He exhorted the budding poet to do whatever was necessary to find that solitude:“Works of art are of an infinite solitude,” he wrote. “Dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create.”
This deep inner place is the land of intuition where you hear the small inner voice, the often-suppressed voice of your unconscious. Let each impression, each feeling, Rilke advised, “come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience, wait for the hour when a new clarity is born.”
A stocky list of prerequisites. Surrender, trust, patience, humility, waiting. Writing is nothing short of a spiritual quest. Rilke was emphatic the artistic life is not for everyone.
“Confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. Ask yourself: must I write?”
So if writing isn’t a matter of life and death for you, it’s better to find another (pre)occupation.
Nighat Gandhi is the author of Alternative Realities: Love in the Lives of Muslim Women.