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Enough Words

I’ve been craving silence recently. The silence of a garden winding down. The silence of a chilly blue sky. The silence of steam from a cup of hot tea. Not so much absence of sound exactly, but absence of words. Or not even absence of words—mostly a break from making them myself.

As you might imagine, this is a bit of a difficulty for a writer/editor. And so I doubt the people around me have noticed much of a change in my behavior. Except for the painfully shy and for Quakers—and even they have to set aside special time to be silent—a combination of habit and social convention is generally stronger than a desire to brush away words for a while.

Recently, I attended a “Big Belly Bash”—a sort of baby shower that wasn’t focused on purchasing piles of semi- useful crap—for a friend who is, predictably, very pregnant. I spent much of the evening captivated by the fact that you could see, clear as day, the baby moving around—causing visible undulations all over her belly.

After the party I was talking with some people about whether near-term fetuses “think” and what it would mean to think without any stimulus. Or very little, very muted stimulus, and no memory to speak of.

Presumably this is what dedicated practitioners of meditation seek, though with all the weight of accumulated experience it’s going to be a little harder.

My job is divided somewhat cyclically into manipulating words, and listening to them. To some extent most people’s interactions are the same, but the cycles are shorter. I wonder if we all couldn’t use those cycles to be longer. Listen. Quiet. Deliberate. Respond.

It’s not a new idea certainly. The world is full of self-help quotes about how people don’t listen enough, or long enough, or completely enough. A cautionary one I’ve long kept in mind and doubt that I’ve ever been able to avoid is: “There are people who, instead of listening to what is being said to them, are already listening to what they are going to say themselves.” I never knew who said this until I just looked it up: Albert Guinon, French playwright, who amusingly seems to be more famous (in English at least) for having said this and a couple other witty things than for his plays.

Interesting, still, that such a line would come from a writer (a playwright specifically). We writers often spend more time than most folks worrying over what we are going to say, listening to it in our heads for chances at elegance, for rhythm, for an opportunity to be clever, for a way to be clearer in fewer words, for possible misinterpretations, for words that vibrate with some elusive quality that we only rarely achieve.

Perhaps we, and anyone else who is frequently so engaged—politicians, activists, and others who have to speak frequently to the public and to the press come to mind—are more in need of periods of conscious listening, and enforced quiet, than your average Joe.

Creative writers often have an affinity for Zen meditation; Natalie Goldberg’s wildly popular books on the writing process, Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind rely heavily on lessons learned from her longtime close study with a Zen master. Lessons about quieting the chatter of the mind that edits what we have to say as we think of it in order to get at more creative and scarier impulses beneath.

I’m willing to bet that journalists and politicians end up heading down that route far less often. Time is of the essence. Quick analyses and pressing deadlines make the slow thoughtful churning of the creative writing process seem impractical. Daring and creative impulses are not seen as useful. Constant demands on our time and competition for our limited attention make thorough listening in all cases impossible.

But I’m not sure that it’s all or nothing. I think a little periodic silence might do us all good, even if we don’t want to commit to a demanding and regular practice.

I took a mini retreat to do some creative writing earlier this summer. I didn’t intend it to be about quiet, but since I was there on my own and wasn’t particularly seeking company, that’s what happened. I realized when I came back that I hadn’t spoken to anyone except to order food in several days. I felt able to notice more of what was going on around me. I was calmer and, ironically, better able to choose my words when I went for them. Someday I will have to try the same thing without doing writing at the same time.

I don’t think there’s necessarily anything particularly deep or spiritual about this desire to be quiet. I just think it’s probably useful to periodically stop the constant rush of words through the ruts of habit and assumption, to recalibrate my sense of scale, to listen without looking ahead, even to the next question.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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