On Listening and Silence: Not Writing as an Integral Part of Writing
I grew up in a small house filled with people and conversations and music and sound. The full noise of eating and talking and Bach and bird songs through open windows was as much a property of the living room as the green walls or the wood stove. Keeping quiet in my mind, seeking control over my sonic environment, became a kind of sport for me. I’d get up at five before anyone else to have a few minutes of solitude by the glow of the tv’s morning news. I’d walk the length of the river by my house listening for the way water would swirl around rocks. I’d take violin lessons to focus the sounds in my head, to learn to experience the world without words. What I know now is that I was discovering how quiet can be an active state of being rather than a default experience. Quiet became an intentional emptying of the mind so that what I’m left with is my imagining, listening self.
I hold onto quiet in new ways now. Since my profession is built from words, any act of saying is a performance by which my value as an artist can and will be measured. Acknowledging this can make casual conversation difficult, even stressful, since the stuff I use to make poems or teach is the same stuff I use to call the phone company or order burgers from Sonic. This is not true of other kinds of creators. Oil painters don’t talk with pigment. Weavers don’t build baskets from the same material that forms their thoughts. When I decide not to write for a time what I’m really doing is keeping something for myself. Every time I teach or speak or write I’m giving a part of myself away, I’m joining a world that always wants more; not writing, then, becomes an act of vigilance, protection, restoration, love.
Quiet for me as a poet is much more than an absence of sound; it’s freedom from my medium. It’s an attempt to get back to pre-verbal experience where words have less hold on my mind and can pass in and out of my thinking like birds, like migration. When my words are better at leaving, they’re also better at coming home.
Not writing, it turns out, is as important to my creative process as writing. This “not writing” is an active stage of gathering and reflection; it is, essentially a descendant of the kind of listening I began to practice as a child. The “not writing” takes many forms—reading, drawing, learning about a new subject, cooking, going for a walk with my eyes and ears open, staying alone in a room without time or obligation or agenda. The point of it all is that I’m allowing myself to be curious, that I’m enacting a ritual: release judgment and worry, invite imagination and connection. The “not writing” is about being ready, about preparation, about taking time away so that my words can grow wild again, so when they fill the sky of my open page they’re grateful for flight and take to the air soaring.