Shut Up and Listen!

One Man's Quest for Absolute Silence

Why Writers—and Everyone Else—Need Silence

Shutting out noise breaks us out of our ruts, and opens us to deeper rhythms

In researching a book on silence I found there were two types of silence that are vitally important to us, both as writers and as social animals.

One I thought of as absolute.

This can be the worst kind of silence. As the AIDS slogan goes, Silence = Death. Sound is a manifestation of life. Only when you are dead is your body truly silent.

Absolute silence can be sign and symbol of oppression. It's the silence of the disappeared. Political prisoners are not heard from, in Chinese jails or CIA extraordinary rendition sites. We did not hear the Lakota when they were chased from their territory.

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Absolute silence is also what follows a traumatic shift in the balance of things. If you've ever heard a bomb go off; if you've ever been in a bad car crash, you know what I mean. It's the silence that comes when you know the old balance has been destroyed, and you're waiting to see what the new balance is. Am I dead? Is my leg broken?

It's the quiet that pervaded Boylston Street, in Boston, after the bombs went off at the marathon finish line, as people tried to grasp what had just happened.

That's the silence of humor also, because humor relies on setting the old order of things on its ear, before replacing it with something ludicrously different. "So a horse walks into a bar—" Silence.

Absolute silence is vital because it breaks the iron loop of feedback that causes us to listen only to what we expect to hear. It cuts off previous rhythms and opens us up to new ones. It's the mental silence that comes between opening the book, and reading the first line. Silence: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins." Silence: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

Which brings me to the second kind of silence. It's a relative silence, because it both depends on and defines rhythm. It's a creative silence because our lives are based on rhythm: Circadian rhythms. Drumbeat of perception and work, family life and bus schedules. Silence is the root of musical rhythm. And in the quiet that bookends every syllable, word and phrase, it's the source code of good writing.

Listen to this line from Harold Pinter's Betrayal, when during a holiday in Venice Emma realizes her husband found a letter that proves she's having an affair with his friend Gerry. "Any other news?" (Pause.) "No." (Really long silence.) "Are you looking forward to Torcello?

In that silence between "No" and "Are you looking forward to Torcello" lies a pain they cannot yet parse or even face, that carries within it the end of their marriage.

Consider this fact: Our senses perceive 11 million units of information a second. Our conscious mind retains one. But our non-conscious mind caches far, far more. These—folded into impressions, wired to spatial tags, structured and navigated—become our deep rhythms, our unconscious mind. They are the feedstock of our emotions.

Consciousness is always chattering, making noise, blocking those deep rhythms. In writing it's the headlong narrative, the sequence of actions, the surface narrative.

Silence is the crack in narrative through which deep rhythms and emotions emerge.

George Michelsen Foy, a novelist and journalist, teaches creative writing at NYU. His latest book, Zero Decibels: The Quest for Silence, is published by Scribner.

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