On page 49 of the 1996 edition of The Highly Sensitive Person (the ’98 and ’00 editions were checked out), I encountered a section called “The Problem of Being In Too Much,” describing the tendency of many highly sensitive people to cloister themselves from an overwhelming world. On first glance, this isn’t my problem. I like people, I like exploring, and quite often I run around doing AllTheThings until I burn myself out. But the truth is — especially since I don’t have a day job — in an average week I spend way more time indoors and alone than I do out. I keep myself busy, of course: I volunteer, I have my Meetup, I run errands and see friends and whatnot. But going out is always a choice I get to make, and inertia is strong.
Although I am always surprised when it happens, I have learned to recognize the signs of an over-active schedule. I get tired; I get irritable; I start wanting to skip out on things I was so excited about just a few days ago. I’m discovering that the symptoms of excess staying-in are somewhat similar. I get lethargic; my always latent social jitteriness gets worse instead of better; what was restful and nurturing just a few days ago is now merely an excuse to be lazy. I don’t usually notice, right away, that the pattern is familiar. But when I’ve been in too much — even if it was for a good cause, like recovering from illness or hunkering down to finish a project — everything in my life suffers, most notably my mood. I lose purpose.
Lately I have found a wonderful antidote to too much isolation: writing with friends. I never made much of a practice of it before, and I’m not sure why (though I have fond memories of sitting in coffee shops with Kuukua). But these days? These sessions feel like… well, it’s too melodramatic and clichéd to say a lifeline. But they feel necessary. Not only do I get a lot done, but I leave feeling like what I’m doing matters, and that might be more important than the writing itself.
sketching at Mazarine before Chaney’s arrival
They have these incredible tiled alcoves behind the counters.
It helps that at the moment, I have at least three local friends I can call on for writing dates. Nayomi started it all by moving to an adjacent neighborhood and inviting me to write with her. Chaney is in San Francisco, so if I go meet him, I get a double dose of activity (writing plus taking the train to the city). Nikki just moved to Oakland, and we had our first writing date on Monday. One of these days I am hoping to write with Adwoa. (I wish Steph were still in the area!) Everyone has different energy and works on very different projects, and we’ve been meeting in different neighborhoods, so there is both comfort and freshness each time. I think I need that.
Café sessions with friends come with many benefits, compared to writing alone. Usually we manage to keep chitchat to a minimum, but there’s still an atmosphere of camaraderie (not to mention the occasional gossip about mutual acquaintances!). Having a writing partner somehow helps anchor me in the mildly chaotic environment of a busy café, especially if I’m having to share a table with strangers: a friend is a solid defense against the overwhelm of mechanical noise and shouting baristas and other people’s conversations. Additionally, I have someone to watch my stuff when I go to the restroom — a serious consideration for those of us with small bladders! And then, of course, there is the not-so-flattering reality that when I have a respected friend typing away next to me, I’m essentially shamed into being productive as well. It’s too embarrassing to sit there browsing Facebook when I can see quite clearly that my comrade is hard at work!
All of this is on top of the usual benefits of working in a different place: the change in atmosphere, a solid block of time dedicated to a single activity, open physical boundaries (as opposed to the closed doors of one’s own home). I also have a theory that I work better when I give my overactive left brain (and inner critic) something to fiddle with. Have you seen that scene in Amadeus, where Mozart rolls a billiards ball back and forth across the table as he composes? It’s a delicate balance. A hint of distraction (like customers walking in and out of a café) occupies part of my brain just enough to free up the rest of it, but if the distraction is too substantial, I won’t be able to focus. So I bring headphones out with me — to control my aural environment — and let my peripheral vision (and the scent of coffee or tea!) be the equivalent of Mozart’s billiards ball. With the company of a friend alongside, it works very well.
Added bonus: trying new restaurants with friends! I have Chaney to thank for this one.