The Sound of Silence
by Sherman Smith
Most new writers struggle to find an environment where they can write without interruption from the neighbors’ barking dog, the endless cell-phone conversations by your spouse, TV, the noise of the city just outside your window.
It is hard to think with all that clatter. Or is it? Most of the writers I have spoken with prefer their environment to be stone-grotto quiet. A place where they and no one else can hear the words first come together to become “the story.”
When I first started writing, I tried silence. Silence can actually become a rather noisy neighbor, one who looks over your shoulder at the same screen as you as the words first come together.
It is easy to become a little paranoid when someone is looking at your work prematurely. You begin to second-guess yourself: “Is it good enough? Is that what I meant to say?” Instead of writing from where the story comes comes from — the writer’s gut and conscience, the creative self — you let writer’s block edit your work.
So I choose to write with the real world just on the edge of my creative being. No, that does not mean that I have invited the neighbor’s dog inside or will baby-sit one of those terrible twos that, like most young children as they grow, demand your full attention.
I choose music: classical or jazz; non-vocal if possible. Now it is cocktail hour, a little story-sharing time, in a friendly atmosphere where I get to exchange thoughts with the characters that come to life in my stories.
I don’t mind if Duke Ellington shares a little of my mind. He’s not going to look over my shoulder and criticize my characters’ intent. With a touch of Mood Indigo I can hear: “Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight tweets of Paul Revere.”
No my best stuff comes when I share my mind just enough to help share the story. Quiet is too much of exactly that: the sound of silence.
Thank you, Sherman, for an illuminating and thought-provoking description of your favorite creative atmosphere.
Fortunate are the readers who have followed Two Blind Men and a Fool and entered the world of Earl, Stella, Henry and the others and seen them come to life. As the story began with you, so it might come to us with the jazz greats of music history playing softly in the background. They would indeed help set the mood.
You’re quite right that “stone-grotto silence” has a sound of its own. The fact is, there is no silence. Even if there were, our own ears would talk to us. And even in space, astroseismologists tell us, the stars sing, each its own song.
Writers have to be careful about the ambiance in which they compose. Too much noise, as you say, and they lose focus. Students sometimes say they study best with the radio on. No, they don’t; the real reason is that they’re lonely. Any yammering in the background will be a distraction.
Writing is like improvisation in jazz. It’s recursive, reflective and proceeds not in a straight line but in spirals of point and counterpoint. Likewise, writers frequently stop and go back to rewrite before proceeding.
To proceed, it’s essential to listen to the subconscious, which is the source of all creativity. And the subconscious works at its own pace; it can’t be hurried. The secret is to relax one’s focus like a saxophonist who’s peripherally aware of what the other members of the group are doing. A writer’s equivalent is to take a break from the solo, to daydream, walk or sleep and let the subconscious combine old themes and propose new ones.
Our motto “Proofreading never ends” is a corollary of the fact that all texts are dynamic. Even if they’re engraved in stone, they’re subject to interpretation. And just as an improvisation can be recorded but not repeated, no text would be written the same way twice.
Human beings seem to be hardwired to avoid repetition. Call it an innate strategy of survival that prevents us from being content to knap flints when we could live better by smelting bronze or iron. And who cares where an idea comes from: it may be from your own subconscious or from a passing traveler’s friendly tip. In either case, you can make it your own.
Copyright © 2014 by Sherman Smith
and Bewildering Stories