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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Response to Silas House’s Essay “The Art of Being Still”

daydreaming-quotes-graphics-8Note: I’ll pick up the discussion of whether real writers get writer’s block later this week.

Silas House recently published “The Art of Being Still” in the New York Times. I agree with everything in this intriguing essay about the writer’s need for stillness except this comment: “We writers must become multitaskers who can be still in our heads while also driving safely to work, while waiting to be called ‘next’ at the D.M.V., while riding the subway or doing the grocery shopping or walking the dogs or cooking supper or mowing our lawns.”

Multitasking is the antithesis of the stillness Mr. House so sagely recommends earlier in his essay. Research shows that multitasking fractures our ability to focus our attention not only in the moment, but for hours later.

Recent brain research indicates that roughly 2.5% of the population have a cortex that can truly multitask. The other 97.5% of us shift our focus from task to task. And every time we do, we lose processing speed and accuracy. Trying to simultaneously do multiple things that require cortical attention takes up to 50% more time and creates up to 50% more errors than completing the tasks sequentially.

To make the most of our creative cortexes, we writers must stop attempting to multitask. Yes, we can effectively think about our characters, story or topic while riding public transit or walking the dogs. But don’t be surprised if letting your mind wander while you’re in the grocery store means you spend more time shopping and bring home items you didn’t want and forget items you did.

Yes we can, as Mr. House recommends, function with “a bit of your mind focused on reality and the larger part of it quiet, still, and always thinking like a writer.” But we also need to claim and defend time solely for writing.

You can gain great insight to your character while buying your groceries, but that insight doesn’t do your readers any good if you don’t give yourself time to incorporate those insights into the manuscript.

During the time we reserve for being still and therefore open to our writing, our fingers may fly over the keyboard recording ideas and images (aka “writing”). Or they may manipulate a paintbrush, clay or a crayon in creative play. Sometimes they may lay quiet in our laps as we meditate.

But our minds must not be constantly stimulated by and focused on email, Twitter, spreadsheets, text messages, conversations about writing that don’t lead to actual writing, and the rest of the distractions that constantly swirl around us. Writers need stillness.

How you do create stillness for your writing?

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8 Comments on “Response to Silas House’s Essay “The Art of Being Still””

  1. Michael V. Faller February 26, 2014 at 4:39 am #

    Amazing things here. I’m very happy to peer your article.
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    a mail?


  2. essayontine.com July 4, 2013 at 7:00 pm #

    It’s enormous that you are getting ideas from this article as well as from our discussion made at this time.


  3. Joel D Canfield December 5, 2012 at 8:58 am #

    Our first home here in the wild north is a bit small, but in the spring, we’re moving to a bigger place even farther out in the woods; one which will have less traffic nearby, and a room with a door for my writing.

    I find it interesting how many of the books on writing talk about “writing with the door closed” both actually and metaphorically.

    For now, it’s a good pair of headphones, plenty of Mozart, and a big box lid that says “Disturb Only in Case of Emergency” standing at the edge of the desk. (And in a tribute to my adult children’s youth, it defines “emergency” to mean “you can see either flames or blood.”)


    • rosannebane December 6, 2012 at 4:03 pm #

      Nice! You can Stephen King’s On Writing to the list of books that talk about writing the first draft with the door closed and subsequent drafts with the door open.
      I particularly appreciate the definition for emergency! 😉


  4. Laura Sommers December 3, 2012 at 4:46 pm #

    I agree with your skepticism about being “still” while doing errands. Cynically, I think it’s part of that fiction that writers like to create about themselves, that they have cultivated a higher state of mind than other people: “Oh, I may look like I’m grocery shopping, but I’m really working on a character in the more important parts of my brain.”


    • rosannebane December 6, 2012 at 4:04 pm #

      When you put it that way, Laura, I have to admit it does sound appealing, at least to my ego.


  5. Ellen Fox December 3, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

    Yes, I just read that article on stillness and loved it.
    Because I am still working as a therapist, it is very difficult to find time for stillness. I do best on a walk or in nature, then the flow state can take over. When I’m with a client, that’s all I can think about. I am also well aware that multi-tasking is a disaster for me. The neuroscience research is spot on. I would be curious as to what percentage of multi-taskers are extroverts? The majority?



    • rosannebane December 6, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

      I don’t recall if the article specified what percentage of the true multi-taskers are extroverts. It did say that most of them are executive chefs and emergency room professionals. (The article was in 2012 issue of Scientific American Mind magazine.)


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