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
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.
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
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.