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.
“What are you writing?”
This question is one I’ve had so often I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had to explain. The curiosity is never lessened. No matter how many times I try to tell someone I’m just writing a story, there is no end to that questioning. As if they think I’m lying and, eventually, I’ll come clean. Yes. Writers make people nervous. Because it is a strange thing, this act of putting words on paper. To watch it happening is like watching someone undress; there is an intimacy to it that seems to cry out for privacy. Like sex, it isn’t something you ought to be doing in public, right?
The writer is still and quiet, focusing inward, denying the external in the name of their own thoughts. To see it done is both far more boring than people realize and far more unsettling; how often do you see someone that sits without moving anything but their hands, oblivious to everything happening around them?
I can remember being eighteen and perfect strangers would see me in the park or the mall or at a restaurant, lost in worlds of my own making, and come to talk to me. They rarely bothered with hello or excuse me. There was always just one thing on their minds. “What are you writing?” As if this act of publicly refusing the outside world in favor of the inner was something that had to be addressed. As if they were considering calling someone, but didn’t quite know who. And sometimes they would look at me with such expectation, as if they thought maybe, just maybe, I was writing down the meaning of life and might be able to share.
Writers make people nervous. We can be scatterbrained, flustered, unfocused. Between writing, we might walk into walls or apologize to the furniture (I do). Between words, we are ordinary human beings who don’t know where we left our keys and forget to buy sugar. But once we settle in, once all the gears are turning we call upon an intensity that becomes a singular force. The sort of force that could build Deathstars or plot to take over the world… and manage it.
We build civilizations, create languages, orchestrate lives. We change minds and teach empathy and sometimes create so well that our stories send ripples through an entire life. I still bow my head to King; IT haunts me still as both beautiful and terrifying. It changed the way I looked at the world. It made me see things I’d never seen before. When I began to write, that was part of my driving force, a book that made me pay attention, even when I didn’t realize I was paying attention.
My ex used to look at me and wonder where I got that blue vase on the end table in the house of a minor character. I couldn’t explain it to him; I don’t always know where the vases come from myself. It is like having third eye, one that sees little flashes of things, leaving me to fill in all the dark spaces. Do the vases – and potted plants and lurking ghosts – come from something I’ve seen or am I making it all up? Who knows? I don’t even care when I’m writing; I’m just chasing those bright spots and trying to keep up.
To the rest of the world, watching someone focus intently, page after page, on writing is nerve wracking. How still they sit! How quiet they are! It isn’t natural! It isn’t right! The only answer is that there must be something to this writing, something they need to understand. I see what looks like desperation in their eyes, sometimes, as if they think I know some deep and meaningful secret. As if I can give them a spiritual awakening if I would just tell them what I’m writing. As if I might just save them, become some sort of guru with a ball point pen stuck behind my ear. Only I’m not really enlightened at all and seeing my painful level of normality makes it all so much more confusing.
Writers make people nervous. You can see it, when a writer is truly tuned in. It is as though they are wrapped in something holy, a white light that shines only on them. In a world where Facebook has stolen focus, where most people can’t hold still longer than ten minutes at a time, this seems almost like witchcraft. That sense of something magical happening is undeniable – watch any artist lost in their work and you’ll see what I mean.
There is a mysticism to this, a strangeness that takes on an almost supernatural quality. Who knows what we are seeing? Who is to say we aren’t reading minds, pulling secrets out of the air like a magician producing rabbits out of hats? And this is what strikes people, what causes their palms to begin to sweat and hearts to beat harder. They have to approach. They have to know. They have to ask. What are you writing?
Because writers make people nervous.