Silence is one of the major thresholds of the world. – Anam Cara
I’m a talker. Like, the second I meet you, I’m trying to work my life story into the conversation. I’ll start babbling on about my dogs, horses I’ve ridden, every character I’ve ever imagined. I’m like this unstoppable, babbling machine. I’ll tell you everything you never wanted to know and then some. I’m aware this is a flaw. This wasn’t always true. Had you told me when I was younger that it would ever be an issue – this talking thing – I’d have laughed in your face.
When I was growing up, I hid in the darkest corners. I tried to avoid talking, if at all possible. My single year of Speech for high school English was absolute torture. When I first started writing, I was so quiet that people often forgot I was in the room. When they asked me what I was writing, they were lucky to get a single sentence. I did my talking on paper. I lacked social skills – still do – and I had this desire to listen more than I spoke. Part of that was fear; I was so used to being bullied that I simply assumed there was nothing I could say that was worth anything or that the listener would just start laughing at me. But there was more to it than that. Once I began to write, I was always listening inward, waiting for the words. It was intoxicating; after so long wondering if I had any talent, I’d finally found something I was good at. I had a best friend and this was how we communicated, through our notebooks as we sat writing at her mother’s kitchen table. I can’t really make anyone that isn’t a writer understand what it’s like, to sit down with a pen and just fall into this poetic flow of words that sizzles through your mind like some sort of song, like a fast rap that you have to grab hold of and try to catch as much as possible. The only comparison I can imagine is flying.
Those moments were so wonderful, so perfect that I can still tell you what it was like to sit there, listening to the insects buzzing outside the window, smelling the deep, rich green of summer drifting in through the screens, listening to the scratch of pen on paper and knowing that every single thing about our lives was just fodder for my voice to turn into poetry. Those moments are so clearly etched in the fabric of my being that, if I close my eyes I can be there again and tell you everything about them, right down to the clothes I was wearing. There was this sense of transcendence, as though we were about to be enlightened, and I didn’t care if anything ever changed. In Buddhism, they talk about the eternal now and even though I didn’t have the words for it back then, that is exactly what it was. I was standing right on the edge of enlightenment, so fully present in my own life that those moments still have an impact on me over twenty years later.
Of course, having moments like that, those wild, high hours of pure presence, mean that, when you are struggling, you know you are struggling. Like, really, really know. To the point where it breaks your heart a little because it feels like you’ve been exiled from heaven, somehow, and you aren’t really sure how to get back in. Recently, I’ve been trying to understand why I so often find myself without anything to write about. I’ve begged the universe for signs (and didn’t pay enough attention see them until there was a sense of something very big losing its patience with me). I’ve done sprints and word play. I’ve downloaded plot generators, signed up for classes, denounced waiting for inspiration and motivation in the name of charging on without them, done every writing prompt, and still found that the mysterious connection to the words, that weird and wonderful thing that used to transport me to another, clearer level of being, is missing.
Maybe it is because I don’t have that friend anymore, someone to trade notebooks with, someone I trusted so explicitly that she is still the only person on earth that knows anything about who I really was back then. Maybe it is because I lost the habit of writing about my own life – no-one was around to read it or comment on it, so the conversation became one sided and I lost touch with the desire to explore myself. Does the reason really matter? I didn’t think so. I just wanted it back. So I went on this whole journey trying to understand where I have been going wrong.
Part of my search has involved reading, of course, but I am a reader by nature. Currently, I’m reading four different books at a time and only one of them is allowed to be on writing. I did find it curious when two my most recent books choices in this area suggested not daily writing practice, but sitting in silence and listening inward. But I didn’t quite grasp the importance of this simple act, didn’t quite let myself remember that I’d once been happy to play mute. Then I began a book called Anam Cara – not a writing book – and there, again, a chapter on the importance of silence. And another book on Celtic Shamanism talking about silence. Then yet another book, this one pure fun, in which silence played a major role of inspiration and rebirth. And that’s when I saw the shadow on the ground and realized there was a piano hanging out a fifth story window, just waiting for one little push from the universe – which felt just a little exasperated with me at that point. It’s the sort of realization that makes you shake your head at yourself because the most obvious answer to the issue has been there all along. Which, of course, I knew and very adamantly told myself I did not. All this time, I have been willfully ignoring the one question I should have been asking and kept refusing to answer. Who was I, when this writing thing first grabbed me? What changed?
Back when I began this, I embraced silence. I loved to sit and listen to my own thoughts. Over time, some things changed, partially because of who I became, partially as an attempt to please others – not suggested, fyi – and I forgot how to keep my mouth shut. I forgot to save my words for the page. I was scared to death no-one loved me, so I opened my mouth and tried my best to convince them of my worth by babbling on mindlessly, looking for that thing that would make them smile and say they couldn’t live without me. Yes. Here we are at fear, which is the number one problem I’ve always faced. Only this fear included consistently sabotaging myself for fear that, if I made them wait, they wouldn’t stick around.
Now, I won’t say this is my only problem; I have more issues than Playboy, as we used to say, but this is one of those simple things, one of those fixable things. And it is clear that someone or something was trying to get that through to me; so many things were pointing clearly to my tendency to ramble on, unable to embrace silence the way I once did. Unable to be still. I was so busy babbling, so busy chasing updates on Facebook and trying to find something worth watching on television, so busy trying to bring some external meaning to my life, that there was no stillness left inside or out. My talking issues are very closely linked to a lot of other things, just to be clear. My need to check Facebook (don’t want to be left out), my need to post random, silly things (pay attention to me), my endless talking (will someone just confirm that I still exist and that I matter), all of it is part of the same thing, that fear that nobody would notice if I was gone. So there was only one thing to do about that. Get real quiet and vanish into the wall, if only to remind myself that, once, I’d found comfort in just that.
And there, my dears, is the advice of this post. Be silent. Be still. Stop worrying what Sarah is eating for lunch (or who she is eating it with). Stop telling your stories to people who won’t remember them tomorrow. Spoken words evaporate like a drop of water on Arizona asphalt in the middle of summer. Catch your words before they escape your mouth and channel them down into your hand, instead. Learn to love listening because that is what this job is really all about.
Sit someplace quiet and, for a while, at least, listen to what is going on inside instead of chasing external obsessions. Stop talking. Let yourself be quiet. Inspiration is like a butterfly. It does not choose to land on those who aren’t patient enough to stay still and wait. You can chase the butterfly, but, in doing so, you run the risk of tearing his wings or chasing him away for good. In silence and inward reflection, we meet our true selves and hear the words that really matter to us, the ones we really want and need to write. It is a beautiful and terrifying act of willful denial. To turn off the television. To put down the phone. To just sit with yourself. It is in our nature to shrink from such things. But if you want to write well, the first person you need to know – flaws, desires, and greatest wishes – is yourself. The first voice you need to listen for is the small and quiet one from within and it will only ever whisper. So be silent with me, if only for a few minutes. Sit and listen to what your inner voice is saying. Facebook will be there in ten minutes, tomorrow, next week. But if you deny your inner voice for long enough, it might just vanish forever.