Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sacred Silence


Years ago, while in a religious retreat – deal with it – they had us pick a sentence out of a box which was supposedly Himself’s gifts to us. This type of thing makes me beyond squirmy, because – well – it seems too touchy-feely for words. And if you’re a believer you believe that however He worked, He that created the sparrow also created the lion and the Yersinia Pestis bacillus. It doesn’t seem the sort of mind simple enough to give you gifts via picking a phrase on paper out of a box.

But we’ll leave theology aside – c’est pas mon metier – and my squirmy discomfort with it. If I didn’t know the organizers couldn’t in any way control who got what sentences, I’d have suspected them of a joke, because the sentence I got said something like “I give you silence, so that in it you can hear His voice.”

If the organizers had done this, it would be justifiable. Those of you who have had the misfortune of meeting me, particularly on a day when I’m caffeinated enough and not sick, know that my tongue runs on wheels. I learned to speak in sentences at one and a half and – according to my mom – never stopped since.

However, recently – as in the last month – I’ve been reminded of how much I need the gift of silence, and how rarely it comes.

The silence I need is internal. I’m one of those people who can’t meditate because it’s never quiet in there and no technicque works to make it silent.

Even before the kids and the career, my head went a mile a minute. This is not a brag. I suspect it’s a form of ADD. Most of the time it sounds rather like the chat in a doctor’s waiting room. “Oh, I wonder how bad this is.” “By the way, on the way home, remember to do groceries.” “The cats threw up in the living room again.” Sometimes there’s more worrisome chatter “my LORD the public debt. How will we survive this?” Or “Haven’t talked to dad in a week, wonder how he’s doing.”

At any given time there’s two or three worries – and often five or six – foremost in my mind, plus the fact that I am for all intents and purposes the household planner on behalf of kids, husband and the house/repairs itself.

So, what does all this have to do with writing? Well... that’s another layer of “chatter”. Someone once asked Nora Roberts what she did between books and she said “Sometimes I get a cup of coffee.” Now, I’m no Nora Roberts who is – for those who haven’t read her – a d*mn fine writer, but I daresay her books are a lot more like each other than mine are. I don’t know if that makes it easier or harder, but I just flipped from a layered, textured 17th century book to a fast moving (if also textured) space opera set around AD 3000. This makes life... interesting. And I’m having trouble focusing on the new book.

What I’ve found is if I try to “force” it my mind runs into the easiest (often very silly) channel. To keep myself “there” I need mental silence for at least a day, and then I “find” the story track. This hasn’t happened yet for this book.

In fact with the last five books, I found to pull it all together I need to physically go away (usually to a hotel) for about a week. The first day is mostly devoted to sleeping/decompressing. Sometimes the second too. By the third day the writing starts.

But doing this is disruptive to me and my family and costs money, which when a book is on spec is hard for me to spend. So...

What are your suggestions? How do you call down peace and silence to your mind, so you can concentrate on writing? Do you have the same problem with the mind that runs on trivia? How have you dealt with it?

30 comments:

matapam said...

Walking in good weather, driving in bad (AKA hot and humid). Something about the automated movement seems to free up my imagination.

I've noticed I'm driving a lot less since the kids moved out, and that's not just because I'm not driving them around. The house itself is so much quieter. Half the people creating laundry and dirty dishes, playing music and so forth.

Not very useful for you right now, Sarah. Are you still running? Can you go off to the library, alone, with no time limit, and read whatever catches your eye? How about a museum? A park?

Jonathan D. Beer said...

I find this quite a bit, as I still haven't really settled into a regular writing rhythm that revolves around my 9-5 job. The weekends are key for me, but so often they are taken up by all the small stuff that I ought to have done in the small hours during the week.

I keep feeling like I need a place to go which isn't "where I am" in order to get that mental silence and can concentrate solely on writing. Of course, that isn't true, I just need to get better at developing that headspace regardless of where I am.

C Kelsey said...

I find that I have to go somewhere familiar, but quiet. Last night I was on my small patio and achieved a small amount of writing (until I ran into a gap in my knowledge and had to switch into research mode).

Brendan said...

When the thoughts are racing I lay down in bed with the covers over my head trying to induce a sort of sensory deprivation. Then I listen to the different voices until one drowns out the others and I know where to begin.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Pam,

Unfortunately I stopped running when I got married. I have the "padding" to show for that move, too. (Our first residence was in Charlotte, NC. I hear Charlotte is now considered a walking city. Children, let me tell you, NOT twenty five years ago.) I have these last two weeks started walking three miles every morning. So far no appreciable "silence" but it does beat stress back a bit.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Jonathan,

I don't know. Going to a hotel really helps me. Or going to the office with Dan. Of course for me, being home IS another job, since I'm the commander, cook and bottlewasher around here.
But Kevin J Anderson, who should know, tells me that he needs to go away for a week or two to "close" a book. So it might be a well nigh universal thing.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

Get used to writing in, in brackets {look up name}. Though er... I've had ONE of those make it all the way to finished book. Head>desk.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Brendan

Heavens. I'm afraid the voices WOULD finally get a chance to drown me in them.

C Kelsey said...

I'm going on a good long run this afternoon. I then want to do more writing. I'll be interested to see how productive I am.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sarah, I SO want to run away to a hotel for a week to concentrate on the book I am trying to pull together.

Quiet, food served when I need it and NO interruptions.

Yes, let's all run away to write.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Walking does help. But I've been working such long hours and sick, I haven't been 'free' for about 10 months.

I've hardly been to the gym to do yoga, which I find is like a spring clean for my mind.

Sarah's right. Writing '(name) did this' or 'he grabbed the (name) and'. When there isn't time to check, just jump in feet first. You can always fix it later.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,

Last time I ran way to a hotel like that, they were having a deep sale, and I swear I didn't leave the place for five days Food. The occasional coffee. And writing.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

well, Rowena, I really don't have the time, but I have to, or I can't function and get sick all the time. So, I'm walking. If I lose another 20 lbs, I'll start running again. There's something to running, particularly long distance. It cleanses your mind, in a way.
Can't do Yoga. Eh. Mind not built that way.

Chris McMahon said...

This made me laugh, Sarah. My brother, who is a career teacher and specialises in extensive monologues, left his first university degree to be a Cistercian monk. Yep, that right - the ones who take a vow of silence! You would never believe it now, that's for sure (he only stayed for the noviciate and left after the first year).

I have tried dozens of different meditation technqiues. I have come to conclusion that you need to find a unique channel/focus, which will vary for everyone depending on their psychological profile. Its a bit like the old visual/auditory/kinesthetic spectrum, except there is also an internal and external aspect - i.e. are you focussing on something external to maintain constant thought or perception, or the internal? More to it than that, but its more of the line of a conversation at the coffee shop that a blog. Experiment.

Stephen Simmons said...

Silence? What's that? I grew up the fifth of six kids, then went into submarines. I haven't experienced silence since I gave up the paper route more than thirty years ago, except for that one year that I had a six-mile commute via shoe-leather-express ...

Seriously, though, I somehow learned way back as a kid to track whatever trains of thought I needed through whatever chaos happened to be surrounding them at any given time, internal or external. (A skill that was invaluable during engineering drills on the ship.) Unfortunately, I developed that trait so long ago that it's kind of like the old Spider Robinson story, "The Centipede's Dilemma": I don't really know how it works, and I'm a little bit afraid to study it too closely, for fear I'll break it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

actually conversations work, sometimes. Long, involved writers conversations. Unfortunately they have to be in person.

Argh.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Stephen,

Well, it's not so much keeping track of my thought. I can do that. But recently my writing... heck, how do I put this wihtout being put in a straight jacket?
It's like I'm taking "dictation". I think most of the work -- my having got profficient -- is being done at the subconscious level. I have a sense of the book, and when it's "right" but I can't access it intentionally. It seems to come in silence. Or even a relaxed rambling conversation with a friend.

T.M. Lunsford said...

I actually find it incredibly difficult to write in external silence. Even music doesn't work. I've gotten to where I have to have something like a movie or tv show on as background noise. Lately, I've found watching the World Cup is a great way to get writing done (as long as I don't care about the teams). Otherwise, I put on something I've watched before and don't need to actually pay attention to.

Stephen Simmons said...

Sarah, that makes perfect sense to me - no straitjackets or "men in little white coats" needed. My stories tend to emerge as entire scenes, complete, only in need of word-smithing and polish. Several key scenes, with a vague sense of "this kind of stuff goes in-between ... more or less". Then I head off to climb those various hills and see what's on the other side of 'em.

Stephen Simmons said...

Sarah, I think it ties to something you said in the main post - that you started speaking in complete sentences. My father was an alcoholic. (thankfully, he was in recovery for the last twenty years he as alive.) My parents used to joke (well, half-joke) that I needto always be careful with anything that has the potential to be addictive, because I have always been a perfectionist. I didn't start talking until much later than any of my siblings - but I started speaking complete, grammatical sentences. My language center wasn't ready to let things out until they were "right".

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Taylor,

we found when we had #2 son tested, that is a characteristic of highly gifted children. It also seems to be a characteristic of writers. The external silence is an impossible thing for me too -- in fact I once had an emergency stereo purchase during finals, that even my mom didn't bat an eye at. "The stereo died. I couldn't study in silence." But internal silence or at least a dreaming-state seems necessary.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Stephen

And this is is why I love writers (G). It's like this evening I told Dave (Freer) "this book hates me." And he said "it probably does!" Non-writers would have us committed.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Stephen,

That was my younger son. He didn't say a word here and one there. No, he started talking in complete literate sentences. Only he added another wrinkle with selective mutism. From one and a half to three he spoke only to ME. My husband thought I was insane and was making this up.

But yeah, compulsion is a trait that runs in families. Weirdly, it's a GOOD trait for a writer. You still need to control it, but sometimes my inability to give up is the only thing that keeps me going.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Sarah. I meant that to explain my weird meditation theories any further I would have to do so in person - like as part of a conversation at a coffee shop - rather than via a blog post. I would not promote a conversation as a way to achieve peace:)

Dave Freer said...

I require a good purge. Back off with castor oil! unless you have a variety that only affects the brain. In which case, let's try it on Kate first ;-). Really, I would experiment but one must make sacrifices for ones friends. Seriously, my brain gets clogged. I do find really absorbing scary excercises are good for re-adjusting perspective and flow. Now I like rock climbing but I suspect - for less athletically inclined, that bungy-jumping would work. Probably nearly as well as the aforementioned oil on me.

Amanda Green said...

While I don't go risking life and limb climbing rocks that are best left alone, unlike Dave, I have to admit that I will go find something to physically exhaust myself. Let me build something with my hands, have a good workout against a heavy bag or good sparring partner, something where I have to concentrate on the task at hand and not the voices in my head. Once the voices have calmed down, so to speak, then a long drive or talking with a crit partner about an idea helps gel it enough that I can usually get started without too much trouble. Now, all I need to do is figure out what I'm going to build today so I can quiet the space opera that's fighting with the UF that's fighting with the other UF that is shoving against the historical fantasy...oh my, this may take several weeks of work. Anyone have a fence to build, ditches to dig?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

I got that, it just reminded me that a good long talk -- or a few -- has worked in the past.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Dave,

I have the vague idea a day alone out in the middle of nowhere might work. Unfortunately I'm not sanguine about the places I could go to be alone. Bungee jumping, in addition to expensive, might erase my mind completely. The two primal fears I have are heights and the dark. :-P

OTOH maybe in another twenty pounds I can go climbing again. THAT is something I used to like at least on the seaside (no, of course no safety equipment. This was Portugal in the seventies and eighties! Different now.)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Amanda,

Probably not surprisingly, you've hit on something that does work for me -- the project. I do my best plotting while painting walls. HOWEVER all my current projects are two/three days. Once started I can't leave them because they'll impair other people's ability to use the room. THOSE have to wait till late July.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Oh, yeah -- I can climb rocks despite fear of heights. I think it's the idea of falling through clear nothing that would drive me to gibbering insanity.