Friday, August 23, 2013

Are You Getting Enough Listening Time in Your Life? The Value of Silence for Book Writers

I've been reading a wonderful book this week, by writer Terry Tempest Williams, called When Women Were Birds:  Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. 

When Terry's mother died, she left the legacy of several shelves of journals, and she asked Terry to read them after her death.  Terry was astonished when she opened the first, the second, each journal, to find the pages were completely blank.  When Women Were Birds is a meditation on the meaning of this extraordinary experience--and also on the value of silence, the blank page, in the life of a writer.


I'm reading this amazing book while retreating at a cabin in the mountains.  I give myself this retreat time each August.  I allow myself as much silence as possible. 

Silence means hearing the call of two pairs of nesting loons from the lake down from the cabin, the loud red squirrels and Blue Jays, the creak of trees in the wind, and the crackle of the fire in its old stone hearth in our cabin's main room. 


Slowly, these sounds allow the silence in me to emerge.  And with the silence, an emptiness that makes way for new ideas.



Original Writing Comes from Silence, Not Noise
Original writing emerges best when we have enough silence in our every day.  This is hard for most of us--life is busier than ever and so much demands our attention.  We gradually lose our ability to turn off the noise outside--and inside--and hear ourselves. 

When I neglect this need in my own writing, the writing suffers.  It's a very slow leak, not noticeable at first.  Soon I am riding in a car with a flat, and the writing feels jerky and difficult.

If I allow the silence back, the ride smooths out. 

Why do we avoid silence?  It's not just from lack of time.  Often, we are afraid of what waits inside the silence.  What truths might we encounter when we listen deeply.

But if the words on the page get stale, if we begin to repeat ourselves unknowingly, if we lack original ideas or phrases or images, it may be that we've weaned ourselves away from the nourishment of retreat.


Images, especially, suffer.  They come from silence--from the wordlessness of the right brain--and they are organically grown.   I'm proving this to myself during my retreat week.  As I allow more silence in, new images emerge.  I'm using them in my novel, loving the new directions!

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
If you're starved for silence, originality, freshness in your writing, here's a plan to try this week:

1.  Make time for silence.  It will take scheduling, most likely--booking an hour, a day, a weekend, a week  Give your listening ear some time.


2.  Pay attention to images that emerge.  What pictures, sounds, smells, textures are new to your constellation of images?

3.  How do they (or how could they) appear in your writing?

If you'd like to retreat with me, in a beautiful spot on an island in Lake Superior this fall, consider my September 16-20 book-writing retreat on Madeline Island.  A valuable chance to be with your own wordlessness, in a safe and creative environment, to foster new images and take your book to its next step.  Click here for more information.