A little over a year ago, I picked up A Book of Silence. The title intrigued me, as did the premise: writer Sara Maitland traveled into silence of the most extreme kind. She leased a remote cottage on the isle of Skye and lived there alone. In the tradition of the early desert fathers, she traveled into the Sinai desert to sit in solitude for days (and a few nights). She forced herself alone into scary dark forests. She found moments of fear and anxiety as well as great joy and elation. She encountered a kind of porousness of self that opened her up to the world around her.
As I read the book, I found myself more and more intrigued. Her solitary life sounded so pure, peaceful, quiet, contemplative. And yet…
Alone with my thoughts: how glorious! Alone with my thoughts: what a nightmare! And never mind that I’m nowhere near ready to take off alone for the wilderness. I get nervous on Mt Tam when I lose sight of the trail I’m supposed to follow. I’ve experienced the rich restorative wellspring of meditative silence, and I’ve had centering prayer lead me faster and faster on the hamster wheel of anxiety.
Right about now, though, perfect silence sounds glorious. Maybe it’s because, new to social media, I’ve felt so inundated with coding, widgets, jpg uploading and who has (or hasn’t) Friended me, that I’d love to hop on the express train to the Sinai right about now. My desk is covered in piles, and I’m stuck on a story revision that doesn’t want to budge. I wear noise-canceling headphones and turn off the phone, but this is nothing like the silence Maitland writes about, the silence that blurs boundaries and brings her an exhilarating sense of porousness.
But here’s the thing: As Mailtand tells it, the further she dropped into “the permeable self” available in silence, the less she wrote. She’d sought out silence, in part, as a way to write more fiction. But once in it, she didn’t write a word.
So often, we create what we think will be the ideal conditions for the muse, and the muse goes elsewhere. What then? Once, on a four-week residency at Ragdale, I brought along a draft of my novel. I read it through, made notes, and stared out the window. The words, while far from perfect, felt impenetrable, stuck in cement. The thing didn’t want revising. I despaired. I drank too much coffee. I lusted after the guy in the studio next door. Then, I wrote a poem about my lust and a short story based on “How to Write” aphorisms. Things like “Show, Don’t Tell” and “If a gun hangs on the wall in Act I, it must go off by Act III.” The story took off, the poem stayed in a file, the residency was salvaged, the novel stayed broken.
Maitland took a different tack. In best Romantic tradition, she searched for silence that would “sharpen memory and lead to stories.” This silence wouldn’t be about letting go of the self but about finding and expressing the self in a more authentic way, about individual experience and emotional authenticity. This Wordsworthian notion of self would never have occurred to the earliest desert fathers, who sought not self but God.
Maitland’s linkage of “the strictly boundaried self” – a post-Enlightenment notion – with the creative process struck me. Yes, story-making involves expressing the self. But story-making also, at its most exciting, has lifted me out of self. We tell stories to make emotional sense of our lives. But our stories can hold us back, too. Writing demands other points of view, demands empathy, demands a narrator with some emotional distance on her own life.
How we get there may be as different, as individual, as the kinds of silence available to us. Maybe the best thing I can do is go for a hike on Tam today, think about my characters. But first, let me get this post up.