Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Solitary (Writing) Confinement

Can you write alone or do you need signs of life?

I was speaking to a relative a week or two ago and she asked me how I was spending my summer. I told her that most days, especially the morning hours, were spent writing (I have a couple book projects underway). She sighed and wondered aloud how I spent so much time alone writing. She could not — did not — understand how I could endure the solitary time. I replied (like the good psychologist who recalls self-perception theory), “Well, I must like it because I do it all the time.”

And I do. I enjoy it, the solitary work and the satisfaction of seeing a blank page (well, screen, fill and spill onto the next page, and so on). From acorns grow mighty (and one hopes, not dull) oaks.

The truth is that the summer is a wonderful stretch of time for getting writing done. As I write this blog entry, we are at midsummer or just past it (not the technical midsummer, the one linked to the school calendar — many psychology faculty will be back in the classroom a week or so before Labor Day, others just after, and a few in mid-September). Summer is on the move, so if you want to get some writing done, now would be the time to begin. This reality is especially important for junior faculty members who have tenure pressure to publish (although I would add that there is little sadder than the tenured colleague who just can’t get that article or book out the door — even after years of trying). And, of course, there are graduate students who need to get their dissertation going (or their thesis proposal, anyway) as well as whatever articles or other scholarly products that will help them in a crowded and uncertain academic job market.

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My friends who write generally love the solitary part of the task. One journalist-turned-author I know holes himself away in a quiet out of the way office in the third floor of his home. It’s an aerie, really, and he is happily inaccessible (he just has to control himself from checking email and Facebook). Other friends have the discipline to write in their campus offices in the summer. I’ve never been able to do that because there is usually too little ambient noise—too much quite, at least for me, is its own distraction. This summer, I’ve been writing in our dining room, which has the advantage (or disadvantage) of looking out on our front garden and people passing by on the sidewalk or street. I should be working in my upstairs study, but it is currently an unholy mess. I need to clean it up and I will, soon, but getting some writing done takes precedent.

If you need to write and if you are reading this you probably have some project in mind that is calling your name (or making you feel guilty because it remains undone), then you need to consider how well you work in solitary circumstances. If you can work alone and be disciplined and productive, that’s great. William Faulkner reputedly wrote his remarkable novel "As I Lay Dying" while tending a turbine — he claimed the continuous noise and privacy allowed the words to just spill out of him. Earnest Hemingway wrote in the mornings, standing upright, no more than three pages, and using a typewriter (I doubt Papa liked an audience at that hour). The writer Gay Talese puts on a suit, tie, and hat and walks to his office where he works—alone (I imagine the very dapper Tom Wolfe does the same thing). Following being hit by a car a number of years ago, the prolific Stephen King recovered and wrote in a cubby-sort of space in his home’s laundry room (perhaps he, like Faulkner, benefitted from the turbine-like whirr of the washer and dryer).

I am always suspicious when people tell me they can only write where there are a lot of other people around. How do they do it?! Apparently, many people feel quite comfortable writing in coffee shops. Indeed, I’ve read books where the author indicates in the Preface that whole darn thing was conceived and executed while his favorite barista and cast of “Friends”-like pals looked on and gossiped in their own “Central Perk.” During my last sabbatical, I tried a few times to write in a coffee shop. I couldn’t do it. Like a crow, I was drawn to all the bright and shiny things (people coming and going) and there was too much ambient noise (all that hissing steam). I ended getting some thinking done, maybe a little outlining, but no real writing. It was back to solitary confinement for me.

What about you? Where are you most productive (both quality and quantity) when it comes to writing? Do you have a quiet space or must you be smack-dab in the middle of action in some public venue? If you can’t answer these questions but you want to, then my suggestion is that you take advantage of summer to find out quickly—because it will be August and then September before you know it. Me? I need to get back to my other writing and then get around to cleaning that study. Summer is on the move.

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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