The Value of Silence to the Writer

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.





  1. Amos Magliocco on March 7, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    Great post, Lee. I find myself using more and more dramatic metaphors to explain to students what a kind of anachronism our writing practice has become, even going so far as to compare writers to monks (the catty, gossipy sort of monks, of course). All the toys we use today to fill any open space or obliterate any silence in our lives–the iPods and earbuds and social networking mazes–are precisely the wrong technology for discovering language that comes from inside and explores interiors.

    Mostly, though, when talking to my students, I’m reminding myself.

    My first reaction to your post was to recall the wonderful Wendell Berry poem, “How to be a Poet.” I suspect you were the one who showed this to me. Here’s the final stanza:

    “Accept what comes from silence.
    Make the best you can of it.
    Of the little words that come
    out of the silence, like prayers
    prayed back to the one who prays,
    make a poem that does not disturb
    the silence from which it came.”

    • Lee Martin on March 8, 2011 at 12:01 am

      Love the Wendell Berry stanza, Amos! I think we’ve unfortunately become more and more uneasy with silence. That reminds me of the great teaching trick of the teacher keeping silent during a class discussion. Sooner or later, a student will fill that silence. Well. . .usually!

  2. Brad Green on March 8, 2011 at 1:58 am

    I’m pleased to discover that you’ll be blogging. Thanks to Amos for alerting me to that fact on his blog. This post about silence resonates with me as I used to write almost exclusively with noise. I was a student in one of your classes at UNT long, long ago. I turned in a story pudgy with juvenile, philosophical bombast and you looked at it, raised your head solemnly, and wondered why I didn’t just tell the story. Of course, I didn’t listen to you then, but now, years later, as I’ve returned to writing after a long absence, the point is well-taken. So I just wanted to let you know that the single sentence you offered me way back then stuck and you’ve changed this writer’s writing life. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts here.

    • Lee Martin on March 8, 2011 at 2:07 am

      Hey, Brad. I heard a lot of advice when I was a young writer that didn’t stick until years later. Some of it is probably still waiting to stick. I’m happy to hear that you’re still crafting the word and living the writer’s life.

  3. Nick McRae on March 10, 2011 at 1:18 am

    This is lovely, Lee. I would say so even if I didn’t love meditations on silence. (Edgar Allan Poe’s vision of it is bizarre and oddly chilling, as you might imagine.)

    I draw much strength and comfort from silence myself. It is that heart of Quaker practice and not coincidently the place I feel most at home. Silence, or at least quietude, might also have been the single greatest thing about growing up on a farm at the foot of a mountain in northwest Georgia, miles from anything, and happily so.

    Oh, and I’m a longhand drafter, too. Nothing beats the feel of a good pen on paper.

    • Lee Martin on March 10, 2011 at 9:19 am

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Nick. I love what you have to say about the strength and comfort of silence.

  4. Theresa Williams on March 10, 2011 at 1:37 am

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, too, Lee. I wonder how many of us have?

    I ran across that wonderful piece by Richard Ford (whom I know we both love) called “Our Moments Have All Been Seized.” It was written in the late nineties. It seems even more timely now. I sometimes wonder if our students even realize what is happening to them.

    I wrote a piece recently about how I used to retreat to the library study carrel for peace and quiet. Now my students admit to me that they never go to the library. In my short essay I talked about how I was going through a creative drought. It had lasted so long that I didn’t know how to start writing again. When I did begin again, it happened within the solitude of a study carrel:

    I had to start writing again, but I cringed to think how hard it was going to be. It had been so long, and I was so far away. I’d have to start all over.
    That same day, I went to a university library and cloistered myself within a study carrel. I had with me only a ragged notebook. I ran my hands over the smooth, simple desk. This was my space. I sat very still and listened to people sliding chairs from tables, books from shelves.

    It came back to me how much I loved that wonderful hush, the muted sounds of people learning to fly.

    • Lee Martin on March 10, 2011 at 9:39 am

      Theresa, your comment reminded me of how much time I spent in a study carrel in the library at the U of Arkansas when I was in the MFA Program there. Thanks so much for taking me back in time. I doubt that our students know what’s happening to them in this time where noise is prevalent.

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