Photograph: Emma Davies
We are an innately chatty species. And, from what I can see, we’re getting chattier by the minute. Maybe, just as people speak faster and louder and more determinedly the fuller, busier and more noisy the party, so, in a world full of noise and distraction, we feel a frantic need the need to chat, chat, chat – just to be heard, just as a way of saying, ‘I’m still here…I have something to say…I matter too…’
Of course, chatter is a wonderful thing. Words are a wonderful thing. They’re how we communicate our thoughts and feelings, our ideas and stories. Articulating your ideas, out loud, and on the page, is healthy. Words, of course, are my bread and butter as a writer. But when the chatter stifles the spirit silence we need to think and feel and live and love and write, we know that we need to take a breath, to pause and to stop talking.
It’s hard to escape the chatter: in our heads and outside our heads; the chatter of family and friends and strangers; the chatter on the radio, on television, newspapers, magazines; the chatter that pingpongs in and out of our email inboxes, our text messages, our voicemails, our tweets our Facebook alerts…it seems that we are hemmed in by words and noise. Silence, in other words, is a profoundly counter-cultural concept. And so we need to put up a little fight to give it space in our lives.
I was made aware of my own need to chatter and fill the silence in the Mindfulness course I’m doing. As part of our weekly sessions, our teacher, Mark Øvland, asks us to listen to each other as we reflect on our mindfulness practice in the past week. We are to simply sit and listen. No nodding or ahahing or yesing or interruptive agreements, identifications, reflections…Our job is to listen, to take in the whole person – in silence. And it’s terribly, terribly hard. Yet, when it works, it’s a tremendous gift for both the listener and the speaker. I see it as a sign of respect, an honouring of the person sharing their thoughts and feelings.
Bringing this back to our lives as writers, I am certain that this listening without interrupting (as we take in the world, as we think of our stories and characters) will hugely enrich our writing.
As is so often the case with important ideas that need to be taken no board at particular juncture in our lives, the message of silence has come to me from several sources. I am hugely enjoying Natalie Goldberg’s latest book, The True Secret of Writing, in which she discusses how she has used stillness, meditation, walking and writing in her retreats. She devotes a whole chapter to silence, explaining that although her silent retreats are often judged as extreme:
…what is really extreme in our society is talk, nonstop, all the time, to communicate, cover up, divert, share, hide, lie, fill time, waste time, idly, languidly, incessantly. I do not think silence is holy. It’s another perspective, a way for our chatty society to stretch.
And that last bit is important. Silence isn’t more important than chat and, as Goldberg says elsewhere in her article, we shouldn’t be ‘stuck or frozen in either.’ Retreating into silence when drive there by fear is as damaging as never switching off the chatter. As she says, silence is a different way of taking in the world – a ‘stretch,’ like a yoga posture that gives puts our bodies and our minds into a new relationship with the world.
Level 1: Find a pocket of your day, just an hour or even a few minutes, in which you switch off the words, the thoughts, the noise from inside and outside, and simply listen. Breathe in the world.
Level 2: Every now and then, have a silent day. As you go about your chores, your work, try to minimise your verbal interactions with the world. Nod. Smile. Wave. We don’t need to engage everyone around us in conversation. We don’t need to let the world know how we are feeling or thinking or what we’re doing. Social media will survive without us for a day (see my Fast from technology for one week each day post). For a day, allow others to do the talking: your boss, the guy on the check out, your partner, your child, in the meeting. As much as possible, just allow a silence to sit between you and the world and simply listen. An incredible peace comes from adopting this quiet approach our day. A stillness which allows precious insights we need if our writing is to ring true.
Thank you to Emma Davies for the beautiful photos which accompany this post, marking the beginning and end of your magical, silent day. Emma teaches wonderful online photography classes, do check them out here.