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Lessons in solitude

May 24, 2009

I have spent the past week in a holiday cottage in St Ives, Cornwall. This was a combination of holiday and writing retreat. Well, that was the idea anyway. The week has taught me a few lessons.

I am an internet addict
The cottage had no wifi internet connection. The fact that I ascertained this within minutes of arriving probably indicates to you the extent of my internet addiction. Where wifi failed, my phone succeeded. I have a web-enabled mobile phone, and so automatically defaulted to that.

Within an hour or two of arriving, a friend commented that I seemed incapable of leaving my phone alone for more than a few minutes. And he was right. I constantly check e-mail, Twitter, Facebook etc. on my computer, and when not at my computer I use my phone.

Limited web access is more frustrating than none
As a mobile browser, obviously my phone is not as full featured as a computer. I don’t know if you’ve tried to use an internet enabled phone for anything more than basic e-mailing, but it’s nearly impossible. I use Gmail and have a large index system based on Gmail’s labels, which I can’t access easily on my phone. I had documents that needed editing and sent on to other people, and couldn’t transfer them from computer to phone then send them on. And you can pretty much forget accessing Blogger or WordPress (the web browser on a Nokia 5800 has a bug that means you can’t actually enter any carriage returns…) and Twitter and Facebook are next to pointless on a mobile browser, as the most useful features don’t exist!

I felt very disconnected, unable to interact with others – but I could still be reached. I could read e-mails, see Tweets and Facebook updates, check RSS feeds but not really go beyond them. The knowledge that things were happening, that I was being asked questions, but couldn’t do much about it was actually worse than having absolutely no access. It would have been better had my phone not worked either so that I could have been wholly cut off.

My life is tied into and in many ways defined by my online presence. You don’t realise this until you are blocked from accessing it. It was like losing a part of me – a bewildering sensation, that left me unsure of what I was supposed to do. Ridiculous, but true.

The internet is the enemy of writing
I’ve always told people that when I write, I write. Sure, I have my web browser, e-mail and chat programs open in the background, but that’s just for essential research, or to get answers to something I’m working on, right?

Wrong. If there’s a net connection, then it gets abused. The internet may be an invaluable research tool, it may be an incredibly efficient means of keeping in contact with people, but it is also the single biggest procrastination device on the planet, and the enemy of writing. I will say this for pen and paper – you can’t get Facebook on a sheet of lined writing paper, and your pen doesn’t Tweet at you.

If you intend to write on holiday, go alone
I had a good time on holiday. I liked the people I was with. But they were terrible from a writing point of view, and it was probably a fool’s errand to think I’d get much writing done. Sociable people are sociable, and when you go on holiday with them (especially if they are family) then there is an expectation that you will join in, both day and evening. There is an unconscious guilt trip laid on to you, wholly unintentional I must say, that you shouldn’t be left alone, that you should be joining in with the others.

Out of the week, I had two days in total to myself. On one, I drastically revised something I’ve been working on, came up with a new short story idea for a contest, and wrote the first draft of this article. The second day I rewrote most of this article and got a few thousand words on a story finished.

I was productive, but only in solitude.

A holiday is meant to be restful, and if you are going with people, then you are meant to spend your time with them – so the idea of writing on holiday ought to be abandoned by anyone who lets it enter into their head. This is not what a holiday is for, so don’t make plans.

But I enjoyed the days of solitude I had from a writing point of view. I think I need to plan more of them, days when I have no-one but me, no commitments to attend to, nobody expecting me to be around, and most importantly no internet! I know of a few places that offer writing retreats, both single day and weekend events, so I shall investigate them.

One final tip…
Try not to get in a car crash on your final day on holiday. It really isn’t much fun…

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Paul is off to hospital now so that medical professionals can decide if he is well enough to run in tomorrow’s BUPA London 10,000. If he isn’t, then at least he gets to enjoy a relaxed holiday Monday…
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12 Comments
  1. May 27, 2009 2:39 am

    Notepad and paper is the way forward for inspiration, however I always find the notes I’ve made flow onto a computer. Whenever I write for the web I make notes and the inspiration seems to come to me. I rarely get distracted by the Internet, once I’m in a zone of writing there seems to be a field around where I’m locked into concentration.

  2. May 27, 2009 8:23 am

    Loves stories for the undead (or about the undead) … isn’t that the genre of vampire romance being done to death (no pun intended) at the moment? You’ll have to let us know if Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is worth the reading investment.

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