I’ve been thinking quite a bit about silence lately and how little of it we have these days. We’re surrounded by noise, and so much of it doesn’t make an audible sound: the email we write and read, the web sites we check, the Facebook statuses we scroll through, even this blog post. All of it, though, makes a noise in our heads, and if you’re like me, sometimes it gets to be a bit too much. I realize I’m not saying anything new here. Folks much smarter than I have covered this ground, but still I feel compelled, particularly when it comes to the matter of silence and the creative process.
Before the days of the Internet–before computers even–I remember sitting in a chair with a pen and either a yellow legal pad or a spiral notebook, writing stories mostly in longhand. My chair had to be facing a window, so I could stare out it at those times when the words weren’t coming, and I needed a quiet space from which to invite them. I used to joke that much of my “writing” was actually “staring.” Now that I’ve moved to the computer for most of my composing (I still take up the pad and pen from time to time, especially when I’m starting a project; there’s something about the movement of my hand, the words coming with that motion, that announces the voice and rhythm of a piece in a way that composing on the computer can’t quite replicate.), I sill make sure that I can look out a window. I still take those stretches of time that allow me to look away from the screen and gaze out at the world and listen.
What I hear, if we count only the audible sounds, might be the rumble of the UPS truck coming down the street (by the way, where in the heck are the galleys of my new novel that were supposed to have been here Saturday or today?), birdsong, a car door slamming, a dog barking, or the ever present rush of traffic on the I-270 outerbelt which isn’t distant enough from where I live in Columbus, Ohio, to suit me. But if I sit still long enough and let my mind go as blank as I can get it to go, sooner or later, I hear my characters talking, I hear pieces of memory, I hear favorite passages from favorite books, I hear the idiom of the people I grew up with in southeastern Illinois, I hear my parents’ voices. I hear language, and that takes me back to the writing with something fresh to say. So much of my composing process, then, is a matter of operating within the text and then moving outside of it until I hear something that takes me back to it. Here’s what Alice Walker has to say about silence:
“Everything does come out of silence. And once you get that, it’s wonderful to be able to go there and live in silence until you’re ready to leave it. I’ve written and published seven novels and many, many, many stories and essays. And each and every one came out of basically nothing–-that’s how we think of silence, is not having anything. But I have experienced silence as being incredibly rich.”
Before my family moved to Oak Forest, a suburb of Chicago, when I was in the third grade, I lived on a farm downstate in Lawrence County. Even after we moved to Oak Forest, so my mother could take a teaching job there, we spent our summers on the farm. Although, I don’t own the farm anymore, I still enjoy going back to Lukin Township, often to drive the gravel roads and visit the old country cemeteries where my ancestors are buried. If I’m lucky, I’ll hit a piece of time that contains no human sounds–no tractors, no chainsaws, no airplanes–and the silence will take me back to those days when I was a boy and my essence was being formed, an essence I need to reacquaint myself with from time to time, remembering who I am and where I’ve been so I can be more attentive to the voices and the plights of my characters. So I can listen more carefully.