Over the last few weeks I’ve written about deep listening and attentiveness and about different ways in which we engage with the world as writers — in openness and in nurturing, by being present and as kith to one another.
But across the rhythms of a writing life there also have to be spaces for the interior work, for the processing of all that engagement, in order to write in response and to make room for the long gestations of soul and word.
The seed of quiet
In his poem ‘How to be a poet’, Wendell Berry begins:
Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet…
And Adrienne Rich insists:
The impulse to create begins… in a tunnel of silence,
To create, we find a place where the body quiets and where we hear nothing exterior, even if there’s a cacophony going on around us. A quiet place isn’t always given to us and over the last year, with lockdowns and our homes more full and muti-tasking, a quiet place may have been impossible to find. And yet somehow writers, all artists perhaps, manage to keep quiet spaces in the head and heart where they can plant creative seeds.
Rich’s tunnel of silence works on a metaphorical level, but is also actually true. Before the writing there are no words. Before the writing the sheet is blank. Facing that blankness, that silence, is a brave and extraordinary act. It’s the first step in planting a tiny creative seed that might become an essay or a poem, a novel or short story or something else entirely.
The soil of quiet
Sometimes we have to scavenge for a bit of quiet or put on headphones not to hear music but to shut out the noise. But sometimes there are whole fields of quiet in which to plant our ideas and words. In 1665, the students at Cambridge were sent home because of the plague. In lockdown, one of those students, Isaac Newton, became almost completely solitary and cut off from most of the world. In this strange and cloistered existence, maths and theory became the shape of his quiet days as he worked through a thousand page commonplace book to fill the hours. By the time he emerged the universe had become a different story. He wrote:
Truth is the offspring of silence and meditation.
Quiet enables us to plant the seeds of creativity in that moment when we face the blank page and make the first creaturely mark on the white space of time. And quiet is also the rich field of whole days or, if we are fortunate, whole stretches of time to dive deeply into, savouring the silence that is anything but empty.
The fertility of quiet
I’ve written before about silence — it’s spirituality and creativity and its creative power, something explored by the musicians John Cage and Pauline Oliveros. I’ve traced the positive impacts of silence in the writing of Thoreau and thought about the many different types of silence as outlined by the poet and novelist Paul Goodman in Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry. And I remain convinced that whilst the words are essential, it might very well be that without the silences, the spaces around the speech, these words would become meaningless babble.
In the last blog, about why writers need to be present, I characterised the white sheet of paper or blank screen as Time — and our marks on it the evidence that a creature was here, in time. Another metaphor for the white page might be silence, perhaps as a close relative of time. The space around our words, the negative image — these are the silences that allow the words to stand clear and accessible. And this silence, whilst spacious, isn’t empty, any more than soil is empty.
We live in a society that generates a lot of ‘sound and fury’ and that values stimulation and doing over quiet and being, but that doesn’t meant that silence is a kind of nothingness. When we stop the internal chatter, we may find ourselves ‘hearing’ our own depths in the silence. When we find ourselves in a place of tranquility, even at night in the most remote of places we’re unlikely to ever encounter absolute silence. Silence is most often a space for the quiet voices; rich and subtle but definitely full of vitality.
In his extraordinary book, Juniper Fuse, the poet Clayton Eshleman, who sadly died earlier this year and who made a 30 year study of the Upper Paleolithic cave art of France, narrates the story of two people who go into a deep, deep cave in Peru. Their aim is to spend a night, in quiet, in absolute darkness, deep within the earth — to experience this strange underland. At some point, after some already eerie moments as they settle in to the deep cave, both of them hear a howl. They are so far down, hours into the depths of the earth, that there is no possibility of any animal noise from above carrying. One asks the other if they heard what he heard. Sure did. Whatever the explanation, both of them developed a strong sense of the silent (with its one howl) cave as a presence as much as a space. Both came away feeling that they had more work to do in the silence, but neither felt ready for that work.
Some silences are so fertile, so primal, that we have to be in the right frame of mind and heart to approach them. But any creative artist needs some experience of silence in order to find fertile ground in which to work.
The solace of quiet
Seeds, of course, are packed with nourishment. Soil is fertile because of all the nutrient-dense matter it contains. And from seeds and soil come sources of healing as well as food.
Quiet and silence are intimately bound up in the solitariness of grief. In The Wild Edge of Sorrow, rituals of renewal and the sacred work of grief, Francis Weller writes about all the ways in which communities need to work with loss as kith. But he also acknowledges that there are some aspects of grief that a person must face alone, times when
… we will require the absolute stillness of our own interior landscape, feeling even the barest contact to be too much.
What a humane community provides at these points is the space for the grieving person to be in silence and solitude as a place of solace.
And whilst bereavement of a loved one is the most obvious cause of grief, most of us — no, all of us — know grief well and not only when someone dies. We know grief when we open a newspaper or read a book about ecological degradation. We know grief when a relationship fails or we face a huge life transition or manage illness or weep with a friend. We know grief when we realise that we’ve repressed the parts of ourselves that others didn’t want us to express or … The list could go on and no doubt you can supply your own list of all the ways we know grief from the moment of leaving the womb.
And yet we don’t live in a world that gives much space for this. Depending where we live, compassionate leave from work might be a few days or less, might be limited to how ‘close’ the blood relationship was, might involve going without pay. A two day leave for the death of a child or parent or spouse in Australia, for example. Whilst in the UK there is no statutory bereavement leave — a ‘reasonable’ number of unpaid days (usually around 3-5) may be given for emergencies such as a dependent dying.
Imagine a world where there was compassionate leave because the horse you’ve known and rode every day for more than a decade dies. Or where bereavement leave extends to the friend you’ve known and loved for fifty years. Imagine a world where the community unites to give space to grieve for the passing of whole species or because a forest has been destroyed by fire. We don’t currently live in such a world, but the people who hold so much of the grief for all of us are writers and artists.
And we do it by remembering. In The Four Elements, poet and philosopher John O’Donahue talks about how the transience of all things, all creatures, turns every experience into a ghost.
Is the silence which transience brings a vacant silence? Does everything vanish into emptiness? Like the patterns which birdflight makes in the air, is there nothing left? Where does the flame go when the candle is blown out? Is there a place where the past can gather? I believe there is. That place is memory. That which holds out against transience is memoria.
Memory is not only how we construct the self but also how we transfigure what is lost, honouring the stories that need to be witnessed to. And it is into this silence that writers step, knowing that they can take memory — their own and the reported and the researched and turn into marks on the page, which is to say to turn it into the evidence of a creature on the skin of time. This is healing work. This is deep solace. The quiet work of writers. The quiet that is not death but life itself, as Pablo Neruda sums up so exquisitely in his poem ‘Keeping Quiet’:
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
Maria Straw-Cinar says
Just beautiful Jan. My novel came to me after the silence in the Sahara creating a space within me that I wanted to return to through writing.
So much news fills the head with terror and dread when lying in bed- I need to shift into the silence again- find the thread…
Thank you Maria
Yes–fear is so negative and noisy–a kind of paralysing internal chatter, unlike the creative silence that is alive and vital. That’s a wonderful image of you finding silence in the desert and how spacious it was — and fascinating that a place that is often characterised as empty is actually a liminal space waiting for us to let go into its possibiliites.