Turn on, tune in, drop out

November 23, 2009 | Writing

I didn’t write any blog posts last week. I also didn’t read or reply to any e-mail or voicemail, listen to any music, radio, TV, video, podcasts or read anything. It gets better. I didn’t speak a single word to any person or inanimate objects for seven full days.

Instead I took the advice of counter-culture hero Timothy Leary and the phrase he coined in the Sixties – turn on, tune in, drop out. I did that at a Catholic retreat named San Damiano located in the hills of Danville, California, just a 45-minute drive from San Francisco.

It was an individual silent retreat, one I’ve wanted to take for at least 20 years, ever since reading a Wall Street Journal reporter’s account of his own silent three-day retreat.

Why now? I turned 50 years old. What better time for serious contemplation? A person’s 50th birthday is their most significant, in my estimation, because you’ve lived long enough to have acquired some wisdom but you’re still young enough to think realistically about what you want to do with the rest of your life.

I was also committed to accomplishing two things during this sojourn. 1) Finish my first novel. 2) Prove a theory I’ve espoused for years but never put to the test.

I succeeded with one of the two.

Let’s start with that theory. Writers often talk of “finding their voice” – that genuine (almost spiritual) place within themselves that speaks with true clarity and personal expression. Ditto for practitioners of other art forms. The inner voice is elusive and most people spend a lifetime never discovering it. When we aren’t writing with our unique inner voice we basically produce writing that’s a mosaic of influences, the mashed up voices of our favorite writers.

That’s where my theory comes into play. It goes like this. Our inner voice is elusive as quicksilver because we live in a constant realm of sensory overload – which long predated the World Wide Web. But the web and wireless communications have made the problem magnitudes bigger. Buried deep beneath the 24/7 sensory deluge of radio, TV, reading, conversations, texting, web surfing, social networking, immense workloads and incessant brain chatter is the vaunted inner voice. It’s too subtle an entity and too heavily outweighed by the avalanche of sensory input to provide us with anything more than an inkling of its own expression. On the rare occasions it’s able to speak we rave about the creative magic and power of the “muse.”

And this is where the silent retreat comes into play as a stratagem for finally shutting off the sensory overload. Turn off the gantry of electronic and analog devices and activities that dominate our waking consciousness and, instead, go within. Given this opportunity the inner voice will finally emerge from the excavated crush.

With that in mind, I went on my silent retreat committed to limiting myself to just a few activities.

  • Writing
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Walking

The vast bulk of my time was spent writing. Never in my life have I had so much focused, uninterrupted time to just write. To immerse oneself in your own inner world is a heady experience. The result: After three failed attempts on other subjects I finally completed my first novel – final draft and all. It’s title is Hardwood and, though unfashionable for fiction writing, I gave it a subtitle: A novel about college basketball and other games that young men play. If I accomplished my objective it is funny, introspective and you don’t have to be a basketball fan to enjoy it because it deals in a big way with psychology, religion, relationships, race relations and, of course, sex.

And that’s all I’m willing to disclose until a major publishing house forks out a $30,000 advance and a handsome revenue-sharing contract. (One should be so lucky in the lottery that is the book publishing world.)

By now you’ve probably figured out the goal I didn’t accomplish was proving my “inner voice” theory. No, unfortunately I cannot claim that an angelic inner voice rose up within me and played the Music of the Spheres through my typing hands. My writing was probably as strong as it has ever been, but there wasn’t a revelation or breakthrough of the sort I dreamed or theorized. No supernatural transformation into the equivalent of Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, or Norman Mailer.

But I think the operative question is this: Would I go on another retreat and separate myself from the mundane and frenetic in favor of monastic solitude?

The answer is – yes, absolutely. I highly recommend it.

It has never made sense to me why people aren’t more experimental about their lives, why they would choose to live every day the same way they have lived all others, stuck in a Groundhog-Day-like existence.

Next time around I probably will not observe total silence because it didn’t seem to give me any special advantage. I will, however, severely limit my talking to keep my energy internalized and focused. It’s really no mystery why so many writers and other artists have famously gone on isolated retreats into America’s great wooded environments. Distractions diminish our creativity and productivity.

I haven’t completely given up on the “inner voice” theory either. Different people have very different experiences given the same circumstances. Monks in solitude write of connecting with a Higher Power. And I have no doubt that many writers have had literary “peak experiences” at artist retreats. Perhaps seven days was too short. Perhaps that’s simply not the way I am constituted.

What do you think? No doubt some of you have done creative or silent retreats. Share your experiences in the space below.

 

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The writing secrets of Ayn Rand

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Ayn Rand – the legendary philosopher and author of the classic tomes The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged – produced huge amounts of cherished writing because she understood the techniques involved in producing clear and compelling prose. Her writing process consisted of five steps. In this blog post we examine the writing secrets of Ayn Rand…

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