Reflection on Silence

The comfy chair where I did most of my writing

The comfy chair where I did most of my writing

My silent writing retreat is over.  I needed a few days to recover before reflecting about what went well and what didn't.  

In the end, I think it was productive.  I got more done in those three days on my script than I would have in an entire week at home.  But it was also intense, exhausting, and difficult.  This time, though, there were no tears!  

It was difficult to get myself to go--I was so tired!  I kept saying, "Why am I doing this?  I don't want to do this."  It was the beginning of my Spring Break after all, and I was legitimately tired. 

Despite my misgivings, I went Sunday night as planned.  When I got there, I found some Neruda and a book about hospitality in the wide variety of books that lined the room.  I read for a while.  Then, I found energy I didn't know I had to work until about 11:30 PM. 

The next morning was rough.  I couldn’t focus.  I couldn’t figure out what I was doing.  So, I wadded through several hours of funk.  After lunch, though, I saved my play in two documents – one for each storyline.  That simple action freed me up to begin to make bigger changes.  I wrote until 10:30 that night.  The next morning, I began piecing back together the play I had torn apart.  Before leaving, I had completed the major revision I started.

I did cheat a little... I allowed myself to call my husband at the end of Day 2 for 15 minutes.  And I did exchange some texts between writing sessions.

The hardest moments were at night, when I had finished writing for the day, and my brain longed to watch something mindless on Netflix.  

Some takeaways: 

1. Silence may work better when writing something new.  The impetus of silence on a new play would likely be greater than that on revision. 

2. I’m not sure I should’ve tried it when I was so tired.  It would’ve been nicer to have a few days off first.  But I didn’t have a choice about dates.  So, I’m glad I went for it. 

3. Silence is powerful.  There is something violent and revolutionary about cutting yourself off from all the sources of noise in our culture.  It's hard.  But I think if you're an artist in any form, you can't help but use the violent impetus of silence to make something.  

4. It does take a little time to detox from noise enough to write and begin to flow in it.  And there are times that feel a little like torture.  I think that's the natural ebb and flow of the creative process.  In the torture moments, I really try to trust the process and believe that I'll find my way through it.  

5. I would like to try silence in community, like the Erik Ehn retreats I've read about.  I wonder what the activity of other writers surrounding me would do to the process.  

6. I've learned that both routine and disruption of routine are valid in my process.  I love my writing routine at home.  I listen to music, I write for an hour or two in the morning before going to teach classes, and I read in the evenings.  And for the most part, that works for me.  It's slow, but steady.  But sometimes that routine needs to be disrupted and silence most definitely does that, as well as being in a location away from home. I couldn't do laundry or dishes or any number of other things as a writing break.  But the body and mind cannot sustain that intense focus for very long—or at least mine can’t.  The sheer number of hours of sitting was tough.  

Now I'm back in my normal daily routine.  It's more relaxed -- there's more time to ruminate, do research, read, etc.  But there's also this momentum I'm carrying with me from what was accomplished in the intensive.  The play and my ideas about the play are sharper for having done the silent intensive session.  

7. I learned how important music is in my normal process.  The music gives me energy, helps me focus, and provides clues to tone and rhythm.  Perhaps I rely on it too much.  I found that in the silence I could hear my characters.  They began to speak, and they sounded distinct from each other.  My characters were creating a song together that I was able to access more easily in silence. 

I think playwrights are more akin to composers or poets than other art forms.  We are patterning sounds and silences.  Would a music composer listen to Spotify as he composed a symphony?  I would think he'd only allow his own notes and rhythms as he composed.   

I'm not saying I won't listen to music when I write, but space needs to be made for silence in my process, too.  

It’s hard to quantify what I accomplished in my writing retreat and the role silence played in it.  What happened in that time was more about creating space to hear my play and exploring a new process.  I came away with some new ideas for the play, a more focused palette of imagery, and a more suspenseful and affecting play.  More importantly, I discovered something new about my writing process.

I’ll leave you with this quote by Ehn, who in this article talks about silence as a writing process: “The quality of hearing, the attentiveness and patience, are not merely analogous—they are the same,” he says. “The same patience you need for prayer is the patience you need for writing—there’s no qualitative difference. Of course, writing is different from God.” He pauses, then adds, “Though they are both invisible in certain ways” (“Erik Ehn’s Code of Silence” by Helen Shaw).