Speaking of Silence
Language and silence have always been bedfellows. Most writers know the silence of the blank page. And there's a different, deeply important silence, in which the voice of the writer seems to go underground. Tillie Olsen speaks of this in a seminal work called "Periods of Silence."
Other silences are more productive, even lively. I want to talk about them here. They can lead you to new material, and often let you see the world in a fresh way. You can't always summon them, but there are things you can do to encourage them For some writers, the private or the unfamiliar is a good route: You'll see sunrise falling through the tent on your lover's face, or the countryside of Nicaragua for the first time--and suddenly it's the way it was when you were small and had no words to help you sort out life: The world is new, raw, unsoftened by explanations. Words for what happened come later.
Every writer finds a different route to silence and these routes, though uncharted, are crucial. You want to get your reader to hear, not read, dialogue. You want them to feel the wind as though it's really blowing. But even if you aren't that interested in readers, experiencing the world without language it's crucial to discovering your most original work. In order to ring true, language must be imbued with feeling, surprise, and direct experience. One might say it needs something that is not language to wrap itself around.
Right now I'm in a village near a bay, cradled by trees. This village, a throwback to an earlier age, is a place I sometimes visit to escape North Oakland. Here I have no identity, no distractions. All 'being a writer' means is writing.
Usually I stay in a house owned by friends. It has three rooms, two decks, a fireplace. This time I chose an unfamiliar inn, a place you might even call funky. I've grown to love the house. That means it has a history. And sometimes history impedes silence. This inn has dark wood, burnished light. It's imbued with the smell of smoke from a fireplace. And my room is so small I have to balance my laptop on the four-poster bed.
A moment ago, I looked out the paned window, and saw a woman with bright red hair hurrying along a path. She carried a pile of white sheets, falters, slips, hurries on. Would I have watched here so carefully at home? Maybe. But I doubt it would have been so automatic. Here she became a mysterious, red-haired myth. In Oakland, she would have been a person carrying laundry.
Visiting an unfamiliar place is one way to return to silence. An easier route--and perhaps a more honest one, since most of us are right in the middle of the chaos of our lives--is finding new ways to experience an ordinary day. Here are some things to try:
1. Notice patterns, sounds, and objects in your everyday world. For instance: Last week I sat down on the floor of my closet. There were safety pins, grocery stubs, pink paper clips, velvet ribbons, a mysteriously empty envelope addressed to "Tiffany", a shopping list, a purple barbell, and a tennis ball. (Wow, I thought. I'd like to look on the floor of every one's closet.) It often helps to start by choosing something familiar you tend to ignore. I think you'll be surprised by the images and ideas in things you take for granted.
2. Go to a place you spend time at--a playground or cafe--and pretend you're missing one of your senses. For instance: When I shop, I sometimes close my eyes, and stand on the side of the aisle and listen. And once, without telling my family, I plugged my ears and observed them watching television. Nothing they did was that remarkable. Yet whatever I noticed--whether it was my son (then three) going to the screen to kiss Snow White or my husband flipping through the listings--I was amazed. (They were, too, when I took the plugs out of my ears, but that's a different story.) Once again, I'd found a route to silence, a place without language, thoughts or preconceptions.
3. Sometime I just experiment with not rushing to wrap words around things--and this may be the hardest route of all, since I love to think about my life. I pause one second longer before drawing a conclusion about a stranger. I don't try to understand an image in a dream. I take a walk and don't name things--or give them very general names (for e.g. "nature," "man made" "green"). This sometimes me uncomfortable. I almost always experience something new and even see the world in a broader vista.
Trusting this first kind of silence allows you to be less intimidated by the blank page. If you're starting a story, it's okay to do nothing. If you've come to a sudden halt, you can read over what you've written without rushing to cross out, scribble, or pass judgments. You can also be at peace with the fact that part of writing can't be solved by talking about it. A while ago I wrote a book called FINDING YOUR WRITER'S VOICE with the writer, Dorothy Wall. As I wrote, a voice I didn't want to hear began to speak to me. It belonged to a character named Edward Tolliver who claimed he'd written thirty-five mystery thrillers--three a year. He worked on an Olivetti upright and wore a green eye-shade. "Will you cut the crap about voice?" he asked. "There's nothing you can tell anyone about writing except do it." By the time Tolliver was on his thirty-ninth thriller, I had to admit he was right: For all the help you can offer, there are always parts of writing that are secret and unfathomable, even to the writer. I I wrote "A Chapter of Silence" in Tolliver's honor. It had an introduction, four blank pages, and was followed by a quiz. Tolliver and my co-author were pleased. But our editor at St. Martin's--a sensible and frugal man--said: "For God's sake, we can't run four blank pages in a book. It's a waste of trees." Since Tolliver won't be pacified, I want to share what I wrote here. And since no one reading Red Room blog wants to slog through four pages of blank space (anymore than St. Martin's wants to use four pieces of blank paper), I'm re-naming it "The Paragraph of Silence." Please read arefully. There will be a brief quiz at the end.
No matter what anyone says, there's a part of writing that you can't talk or think about. You're either writing or not writing. And, if you are writing, it's either going well, not going well--or at some point in between.
When the writing flows, you don't care that you don't know how to talk or think about it: You move easily between intuition and craft, thought and imagination. Characters say what they mean. Images create a subtext. And when you read the story over, there's a sense of music, a kind of rightness to the prose. You feel like a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat--no one, not even you --can see the hat's false lining.
It's when the writing isn't going well that you want to get to the heart of what's not working. You mull over the plot. Or rewrite the opening scene ten times. Or try to remember other moments when you felt stuck, and got a story to work. Often you mimic old strategies--without results. Sometimes, no matter what you do, the story withers on the vine. And sometimes, without quite knowing why, the story comes back to life. You may have theories about why these things happen: But since writing is partly an unconscious act, you will never unravel the mystery completely. This is why each novel often feels like the first novel, no matter how many novels you've written. This is why each story feels like the first story, each poem the first poem.
There are a variety of ways to coax writing back into motion--all valid, and I may share some of my own ideas later. . But often the only solution is to do nothing at all. In homage to this solution, I present a small paragraph of silence. It dedicated to the elusive Edward Tolliver, as well as all writers who reach a point in their work where the only solution is to write nothing. Most of us stare at blank pages: Few of us bother to read them.
The Paragraph of Silence:
Quiz on the Paragraph of Silence
1. Did this paragraph remind you of any famous characters in literature?
2. Did it inspire you to write someone a letter?
3. Please write a short essay, evaluating the contents. Pin it to your wall.
4. Extra credit: compare and contrast this paragraph to: (a) a newspaper article ( b) a child's folk song ( c) a letter you haven't received d) a secret you've never written
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