How do you make time for quiet in your day?

Susan CainWhen I was a little girl, growing up in a rural county that boasts only six residents per square mile, I looked forward more than I can say to visits several times a year from our city cousins. I watched from our kitchen window, waiting impatiently for their cars to arrive from Wyoming or Florida. They were coming not to our house but to stay with our grandparents, who lived on the same farm. My mother had to remind me not to rush to greet them before they’d had a chance to stretch their legs and unpack, but I usually couldn’t wait that long, and my legs flew down the short driveway that connected the two houses as though I were Nike herself.

Most of these visits came at holidays: Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Others were longer stays in the middle of the summer, or for our annual family reunion in August, timed to coincide with a cluster of late-summer birthdays of several family members. Regardless of the time of year, these visits all involved days packed to overflowing with conversation, activity, and food. My grandmother’s small kitchen throbbed with sounds, aromas, and women’s voices. The meals they prepared inevitably included mountainous fluffs of buttery potatoes, thick slices of farm-raised meat and poultry, boats of steamy, golden brown gravy, the taste of which I was never able to duplicate in my own adult cooking, as much as I tried, and several varieties of pie topped with freshly whipped cream.

After these feasts, some of the older family members, usually the men, would claim a spot on the sofa or a bed or, in the summer, a space of soft grass outside for an hour or so of quiet repose. The children, however, didn’t stop for a moment. Our afternoons were spent exploring the apple orchards and mulberry trees behind my grandparents’ house, riding horses, playing baseball, and going to the barn where, in the spring and summer, bucket-fed motherless calves sucked hard at our fingers with rough, hungry tongues, a sensation I can feel to this day simply by thinking of it.

At some point in the afternoon, however, I always looked for a time when I could sneak guiltily away, return to our house, enter my room (hoping I hadn’t been seen), close the door, and read.

I knew I needed to do this, that when I didn’t, I didn’t feel “right.” I also felt that when I did sneak away, I was doing something wrong. Being anti-social is nearly a mortal sin in rural communities. I was aware that my relatives would not stay long, that our time together was limited. But my need for what Susan Cain calls the “the transcendent power of solitude” had nothing to do with my feelings for my family. I didn’t understand it at the time, but my overwhelming urge to be alone and be quiet, if only for a little while, was as much a part of me as my dimple (yes, only one) and brown eyes. It had to do with being an introvert.

I’ve mentioned the TED Talk below in a previous post, but I think it’s worth sharing again, especially as introverted children head back to school where their quiet nature may be misunderstood and undervalued. In her talk, Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, describes the experience and benefits of being introverted in ways with which many writers will identify.

At the end of the video, Cain offers three calls for action:

  1. “Stop the madness for constant group work.”
  2. “Go to the wilderness; be like Buddha; have your own revelations.”
  3. “Take a good look at what’s inside your own suitcase and why you put it there.” (This third item will make sense after you watch the video.)

One small habit that has made a huge difference both in my writing and in my quest to focus more effectively is to begin the day with ten minutes of mindfulness meditation. Not until re-watching Susan Cain’s talk recently did I realize that these ten minutes each morning not only clear my mind but also serve as a reminder of the deep power of quiet, of the place I can go back to—need to go back to—time and time again to re-charge, and of the permission I can give myself and others to honor introversion rather than see it as a source of guilt.

For those of you who are introverts, what things can you do in your writing life to tap into the strength of introversion rather than hide or run from it?

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