The Value of Silence to the Writer
Cathy and I just got back from West Palm Beach, Florida, where we went to see the traveling Downton Abbey exhibition, and also to just get away to somewhere warm. Besides the exhibition, we had no other plans. We ended up doing a lot of people watching, and we spent a day poolside. Most of all, we let all thoughts of our jobs and our responsibilities go right out of our heads. In other words, we shut out the noise of the world. It strikes me that this is exactly what we writers need to do from time to time. We need to find a way to appreciate and utilize silence, and by so doing, to tap into our unconscious minds.
Do you remember daydreaming when you were a kid? I was an only child who spent a lot of time entertaining myself. In the process, I became an excellent daydreamer. I believe this talent has served me well as a writer because what is storytelling if not a daydream on the page? I spent hours imagining all sorts of scenarios for myself. Now I spend hours imagining scenarios for my characters. The problem is the world, to allude to Wordsworth, is too much with me. Thoughts of the classes I have to teach, the students I have to advise, the doctors’ appointments I need to keep, the crack in the guest bedroom wall I have to repair, creep in and keep me from entering that state of reverie necessary to good writing.
Yesterday, lying by the pool in West Palm Beach, it was easy to enter that dream state. It reminded me that I need to make the effort, back here in my real life, to shut out as much noise as possible, so my imagination can have the freedom it needs to be able to invent. I remember days before there were such things as the Internet, social media, 24-hour news, texts, and emails—before there was that constant demand for us to be immediately available to the world—when I spent long hours sitting in a chair in my writing room, daydreaming about my characters and their situations. I wrote in longhand then, which meant I wrote at a more leisurely pace, a pace more akin to the way daydreaming works. I believe I was closer to my unconscious then and more apt to tap into the leaps and surprises that dreams can bring. Now I follow the blinking cursor, and while I’m not complaining about the computer and all it’s done to make things easier for writers, I do sometimes miss the blank page and the feel of my hand moving over it, writing with a pen.
I also remember the years I spent attending church and how easy it was to slip into daydreams there and to let my unconscious mind work out a problem with a story that had me stumped. I can say the same about running. How many times did something about a story or a novel I was working on come clear to me in the third, or fourth, or fifth mile? Now I run on a treadmill due to joints that just won’t take the pounding of pavement, and I notice daydreams are more difficult because I’m surrounded by people, the clanging of weights, and the televisions, many of them tuned to the ever-present news.
So this is a post to myself to make more of an effort to find silence and to let the unconscious part of my mind have its habit. I’ve always thought writing is the most spiritual thing I do. Mother Teresa said this: “We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature—trees, flowers, grass—grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. . . We need silence to be able to touch souls.”
Regarding silence…with its daydreams and spiritual openings. I, too, value it for many reasons, including its contribution to focus, thought, and ingenuity–I’ve solved many writing problems during a stretch of time in a quiet space. And I, too, have begun to realize how much it’s harder than ever to shut out the noise of the world.
Just this morning, however, the power went out in our home. For three-and-a-half hours, we couldn’t use our computers without running down their batteries. We could use our phones, but needed to leave enough juice in them to contact someone in an emergency. The furnace fan, which normally runs all winter, fell silent. The fridge stopped whirring. No more rumbling of the sump pump or churning of the water softener. The house was…silent.
I wrote a letter. I planned the week’s activities on a paper calendar and make a shopping list. I read three essays. I worked on an essay of my own.
Yes, silence is a writer’s friend.
(*made* a shopping list)
It’s amazing, isn’t it Ann, what happens when the noise of the world falls away. That said, I do hope you got your power back!
Silence, allowing the waking dream state to emerge–this is why I love writing late at night. No one is traveling our road. The phone isn’t ringing. The TV is off. People are less likely to be sending emails and FB posts and messages. I have no responsibilities or obligations. And silence is the way Lee Martin ends “Across the Street,” after all the directions and misdirections, tension built between the characters, the story’s pace slowed with conversation and description. Then, the revelation, the shared silence of the ending. I reread the story immediately. Though I read and write poetry almost exclusively, your story taught me some valuable lessons through that story, Lee. Thanks so much.
Kathleen, thank you so much for your kind words about “Across the Street.”