I remember the silence of public libraries before they became places where people talk in normal tones of voice or even chat on cell phones. In summer, the only sound may have been the gentle whirr of an oscillating fan. In winter, there may have been the hiss of a steam radiator. People spoke in whispers when they had to ask the librarian something. It was a quiet place, and in that way it was holy.
I remember the country church that my mother took me to when I was a boy. Sometimes it got so quiet, I could hear the whisk of the tissue-thin bible pages as people searched for scriptures. I could hear a woman’s pocketbook clasp shut as she closed it, having retrieved a handkerchief. I could hear the cellophane wrappers of cough drops being undone and the sound the cardboard fans made as people waved them through the air.
I remember a cemetery deep in the country (I still like to go there) where sometimes the only sounds came from a bobwhite’s two-note call, or from a hickory nut dropping from a tree to land in the grass.
As an only child growing up in the country, I developed an appreciation for solitude and quiet. I walked into the woods and listened to the creek water trickling over sandstone and shale. I moved through prairie grass, lost in daydreams, startled only by the clacking of wings when a covey of quail took flight.
A quiet place is necessary for a writer; at least it is for this writer. I fear it’s getting harder and harder to find those stretches of quietude that allow our imaginations to deepen. I’m also well-aware of the irony of this post that adds to the “noise” around you—noise from social media, e-mail, blogs, etc.
I seem to recall that John Updike said that much of his work began for him while sitting in church. I’ll confess to my own daydreams and flights of fancy while in the midst of a service. “What art offers is space,” Upkike said, “a certain breathing room for the spirit.”
It’s the “breathing room” of the creative process that we have to protect, and that breathing room comes from our quiet places. I fear, though, that modern technology is making it difficult. We are expected to be “connected,” and, therefore, we become part of the noise.
So here’s a simple assignment meant to reclaim our right to shut out the clatter around us:
1. Go to a quiet place.
2. Get comfortable with being alone.
3. Let your mind wander.
4. Let it go where it wants, but pay attention to where it goes.