Today I'm delighted to share with my readers a guest post by author, memoirist, and National Book Award Finalist Beth Kephart about how she learned to create silence in her formerly way-too-busy life.
The lines had started to tangle. I was in danger of winking out, going cold, vanishing.
It was a case of too much. It was a series of scenarios in which I couldn’t remember names or small events, manage the pairings of nouns and verbs, or send an email without either losing a word or making one up (we now have revier, instead of river; celebrait instead of celebrate).
“I’d like to make an appointment with, um . . . ” I’d say, calling my long-time hair salon. “I’m not sure if I ever actually answered your email, but . . . ” became a worn-out phrase. “You know that guy, on that show ‘The Voice,’ that country singer . . . ,” I’d say. Meaning Blake Shelton.
Who forgets Blake Shelton?
And then one day, driving to a party, I looked up at the traffic light that had started to bleed red. You stop at those, don’t you? I asked myself. Uncertain.
I had no one to blame (I wanted someone to blame) but myself—simultaneously making or promoting books that erupted from Spanish Civil War Seville, 1871 Philadelphia, 1983 Berlin, and 2015 Florence, while teaching and writing about memoir and holding down the day job. I’d asked my brain (never that capacious to begin with) to master too many categories, and instead of mastery I was facing epic fail. I’d busted neurons, I was sure. Done no small damage to the axonal networks. Thinned out gray matter and diminished blood flow.
I didn’t need an MRI to tell me. I was incapable of knowing, for sure. Incapable of creating.
The fix screamed at me from the pages of countless magazines, was carried forward by family and friends: slow down. But I’d made promises, I’d signed contracts; there wasn’t time for slow.
There was, however, time for silence, which seemed, increasingly, like the only way out, the only cure. I began to lean on it like a prescription drug. To look for every opportunity I could find to ease down and power out.
It began with the obvious. I turned the radio off in the car. I took the earbuds out at the gym. I stopped carrying my phone whenever I could, stopped reciting the anxieties that I had so that they wouldn’t echo so loudly in my head, stopped saying yes to some of the many requests that crowded out each hour. I started paying closer attention to the birds—the nests they built, the eggs that cracked, first days with new wings and downy cheeks. I took in more of the sweet things and less of the static. I breathed, and I observed.
Silence. I created it. I used it. Asked for it and defended it. I took my work away from my computer when I could, sat on the couch with a pen in my hand and a pad of paper on my lap and leaned back and listened to my own thoughts, one thought at a time, no tangle. I believed the neuroscientists: the brain is eager for its own repair.
I write memoir and I teach it. I blog daily about the now and the then. Silence may seem a luxury in a noisy world—a throwback, an artifact—but for me it increasingly becomes my rescue raft. It allows me to dig deep and go long, to sort out and restore. I know the name of that guy on the show. I brake at the reds. I’m finding the end of the story I promised to write. I am finishing what I already promised to do and promising to do less. I listen to the sound of my feet going forward, and not to the buzz of my phone.
Beth Kephart’s sixteenth book is Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Gotham). She blogs daily about literature and life at www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com.
Copyright (c) 2013.
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