W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Monday, May 09, 2005

No 9. Writing Through the Silence


A bit of background to this month's topic…

The train trip was more than a ride to my "nest" in Argelès in Southern France near the Spanish border. It was an escape from Geneva's workload. The landscape changed from forests, rocky ledges to miles of sunflowers and finally to a light that shows itself in Impressionist paintings. Whenever I am in Argelès, I am bien dans ma peau that wonderful French phrase to express well being.

The village itself has existed from the time of Charlemagne. My "nest" is a fourth floor studio loft in the grenier of a 500-year old house. (Pictures will be on my website eventually). I wake mornings to the sound of street cleaners and the smell of baking bread from the boulangerie around the corner.

My first stop after buying fresh vegetables and fruit from the many stands was my friend Barbara's. As a former anthropologist her views and actions still reflect her training. She now runs a used English bookstore, sells African art and clothes that she designs herself. When Barbara hugs me I know, no matter how bad the world is, safe havens exist.

Our talk was of families, work, politics, friends, anything that the world offers. She handed me a book. "This came in. I didn't want to sell it, until you saw it." It was SILENCES by Tillie Olsen. The pages were yellowed from this 1978 edition of a 1965 publication. I first read it in Boston when I was still asking, "Can I write?" Reading it had showed me whether I wanted to be or not, no matter what the world said, I was a writer because I wrote. I couldn't not write.

I took the book back to my nest and reread it cover to cover and realised that what Olsen said then was as relevant to writers today and decided to share some of her ideas in this month's W3.

The silences that stop our writing are not just the internal blocks we turn against ourselves. Nor are they the external demands of earning a living, raising a family. They can be more. The market can silence us. A book we are writing does not match the genre. A political opinion is not acceptable. Our work is devalued by those that make other demands on us. "Why are you wasting your time?" or worse, "How much will this make you?"

The greatest reassurance was that all the doubts I had and have, and probably most of you have, were shared by the great writers. How many of us know that Thomas Hardy stopped writing novels after the critics savaged Jude the Obscure? Hardy said they "killed all his interest in this form."

Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins finally had to break his vow that he would not write poetry. He had kept his promise to himself for seven years as he followed a religious life. His silence may have been self-imposed, but as any writer knows, the impulse and the words break through no matter how hard we try to suppress them.

Olsen discusses censorship, something that is still going on and not just in dictatorships. Think of Michael Moore's fight with Harper Collins to publish his now best seller Stupid White Men. Censorship is not always political. There are the words engraved in stone, I suspect, in every publisher's reception area: "There is no market for this."

Olsen talks about "Virulent Destroyers: Premature silencers" alcohol, drugs and other self-destructive habits. Many successful writers fell victim, Poe, Capote, Thomas. Some may argue that their addictions helped their writing. There is no way to test what they would have produced if they were not addicts. No one writes about how more writers are not chemical-dependent.

Not all of us can, like Rilke, refuse to support our families for our art. Rilke would not attend his daughter's wedding, nor would he break his work for a quick visit from her and her bridegroom immediately after the ceremony. Rilke's writing may be important, but other writers have been able to produce work while living in the real world. At what point does the real world silence us and at what point do we as writers need to silence the real world?

In Olsen's book one could feel overwhelmed by the uphill battle writers face to first get their work on paper, then get if published and finally to get it accepted. However, for all the battles each of the people she mentioned did all three. If acceptance was denied in the beginning, time exonerated the writers. They broke through all factors that tried to silence them. Can we do less?


All quotes are taken from Tillie Olsen's SILENCES.

Balzac compared writing to real life and what it takes to break through the silence of creation problems. "To pass from conception to real life, to bring the idea to birth, to raise the child laboriously from infancy, to put it nightly to sleep surfeited, to kiss it in the mornings with the hungry heart of a mother, to clean it, clothe it fifty times over in new garments which it tears and casts away, and yet not revolt against the trials of his agitated life - this unwearying maternal love, this habit of creation -this is execution and its toils."

Hemingway commenting on the life of Scott Fitzgerald, a classic example of the addict-writer. "He had destroyed his talent himself - by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, by snobbery."

Virginia Woolf wrote about a person who could have silenced her. "Father's birthday: He would have been 96, 96, yes, today; and could have been 96, like other people one has known, but mercifully was not. His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books…"

Sherwood Anderson wrote about the silence imposed by the necessity of earning a living. "Eight hours a day I have paid by working as an advertising writer the last five years while trying to save nerve force and courage enough to admit other writing. It has cost me dearly in rare projects gone wrong. "

Joseph Conrad wrote about how self-doubt could silence him. " I am not as the workman who can take up and lay down his tools. I am so to speak, only the agent of an unreliable master."

Jules Renard wrote about frustration of critics: "Literature is a profession where you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none."


Find your silence and silencers.

1. Out of silence comes truth, but silence is rare. We are battered by TV ads, the demands of our family and friends, the car breaks down. Try and find a place where there is silence, a small wood near your house, a lake, a walk by the sea at midnight, your kitchen at dawn. Listen to the few sounds, because unless we are deaf, we never have total silence. Sit on a stump, the sand, etc. Try and make sure you are relaxed. Listen to whatever is around, the waves, the trill of a bird, the ticking of a clock, whatever. Your silent time may only be a shower with the bathroom door locked. Use that time to clean your mind of distractions. Forget the broken dishwasher and the phone that needs recharging. If all else fails sit in your car in your garage.

2. Make a list of everything that is keeping you from writing. Try and eliminate at least some of them: a TV program, a household chore (dust will wait).

3. Fear of failure. Do you think you will fail if your work doesn't make the best seller list? Maybe the goal is creating your own silencer. Writing should bring internal pleasure when you know you've made it the best it can be for now (maybe next year you can rewrite it better). Tackle your writing in workable chunks. Today I will produce one paragraph and perfect the paragraph I wrote yesterday.


Grammar questions? mary@grammarlady.com She has a newsletter which is helpful for those who are still having grammar problems.

Looking for markets? http://www.writersweekly.com Also has a list of places that renege on payments.


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