This morning I was reading The Paris Review, when I came across a piece written by one of author, Marcel Proust’s friends. The article was entitled something along the lines of the strange habits of my friend Marcel Proust. Reading it I discovered what an affinity I had for Proust, his need for silence and his long hours spent in solitude, wrestling with his writing and his own questions and imagination. His friends noted that he had rented 5 rooms, one to live in and four others to contain the silence. I laughed as I thought about how I contain myself in small pockets of my own apartment when I’m writing. Of course all artists and writers need to be alone sometimes otherwise they wouldn’t get anything done. However, how each of us deals with the need or fear of silence is different, I believe.

One of the most important features of my home is the quiet. When I first moved here, I had just left San Francisco. In our home in San Francisco noise was part and parcel of every day and night. The constant drone of traffic, sirens, construction work noise, people on the streets day and night, trash trucks and delivery vans noisily going up the small alley way where we lived. Drunks and homeless folk lost in their own nightmares, screaming, yelling, fighting beneath the bedroom windows. The cacophony and endless level of noise produced a constant state of stress. The first night I spent in my new home in Oregon, I relished the sounds of silence. One night while working at my desk, I was disturbed by a loud racket outside. I rushed to the window to see what was making so much noise only to discover a duck quaking. A duck. One, lone little duck quacking on the river below. I had to laugh, but realized then that my adjustment to the noise level had shifted significantly.

In my home I have a heater that when it is turned on, sounds like a jet engine to me. I would rather wear 10 layers of clothing than turn the damn thing on. Over time, it and I have built a good relationship. When I leave the house for a while, I turn it on so it can do its job.When I return, I turn it off. My body too has acclimated, and I don’t seem to get as cold as I did when I first moved back home. Yes, noise can be a problem because I guess I’m so attuned to it that at times it’s hard to ignore. Just now, for instance, a dog outside was barking at a runner passing by. My whole system went into crisis mode, I jumped up to check to see what the danger was and realized my level of sensitivity can be quite a distraction.

The physical noises are just part of the noise that disturbs and requires adjusting to. My need for quiet and stillness is great, but my need for an emotional, mental, and spiritual stillness is perhaps more vital. Spending and enjoying long periods of time in solitude, I know enough to get out to socialize with others on some kind of regular basis. If I don’t…well does agoraphobia ring any bells? To head off that all too familiar comfort with maintaining close quarters, I go out to exercise, to walk, to sit in coffee shops, to meet friends, and to simply just wander with everyone else. It’s not something I do willingly some days because frankly, I’d usually rather not go out. There’s a cute Sesame Street song about innie and outie kinds of people. I am definitely an innie.

Yesterday was one of my outside days. At this point in time, I’m working on finishing up a book. This for me, is the hardest point. The point at which it feels like I’m running around and around in circles over the same questions about commas, characters, and timelines that I’ve had for ages. It’s grueling work editing your own work, so that’s why we writers get help. Even then though, if you’re a control freak like I am, having help simply means you’ve pulled someone else in on your madness. Now of course this wasn’t what I was thinking when I went out. In the morning I had an appointment for a massage, something I’m fortunate enough to get to do ever so often. My muscles and tendons hide their pain from me, and only when I’m rolled out on a warm massage table with the masseuse rolling fingers over and into the deep tissue does the pain scream out. Hidden tension and stress, that needs to be released. A writer needs to focus on self care. When I realize that even with all I do to keep myself fit, I’m still working my body hard and I need to take good care of it.

And of course our bodies hold lots besides pain or stress. We are always in the process of learning and growing and responding to the processes we are living through. After my massage, I drove to my friend’s house. We had planned to do a couple of hours worth of work on the manuscript. What we did instead was much more beneficial I’m realizing. We sat at the kitchen table, had a cup of tea, and chatted. Neither one of us was feeling exactly sharp and raring to go. She might have been more than I, but instead we simply followed our train of thoughts, and talked about how we really felt about life, things in general, and some things very specific about what was growing on in our own lives. It was a good couple of hours, and at the time, I didn’t think much about why it was going to prove to be so important.

This particular friend is one of those friends who, as Julia Cameron likes to say, is a mirror friend. We both seem to be able to reflect back to one another, something that helps each of us see ourselves. After our enjoyable afternoon, I felt the weather start to change, and wanting to get home before it began pouring, I left. Stopped at the market, and serendipitously ran into two friends we had just been talking about. When I got home, I felt refreshed and relaxed. And surprisingly, I felt energized and ready to go on my work. What had changed? What had happened? In the time I took away from the silence and solitude, I found space to quiet my own mind and emotions and to simply be present with two other people–people I like and trust. In that quiet with others, I heard something of the essence of what was needed to quiet my own mind and to still my own body. To assure myself that what I’m feeling is normal. I recognize that chaining myself to my desk or computer would not help me reach a conclusion to anything.

Slowly, calmly, and imprecisely, I mulled over the gifts that come from interacting with others. The connections we make with others who struggle with some of the same things we do. “Will this ever be done?” “Can I even read what’s in front of me anymore?” “How am I going to get the energy to do what needs to be done?” ” What about everything else I’m supposed to be doing?” Slowly and in a rather dreamlike way, the heaviness of the work, lifted a bit. Taking time away to refresh, renew, regenerate, and reflect was exactly what was needed. And we learn, again and again, to move in the rhythm of our own being. We have partners along the way, who help us or who remind us or who believe in us. And that’s all good. But we also have within us that still, quiet space where we live with who we are, and learn to adjust to that inner being’s changing needs and moods while maintaining contact with that inner essence that brings us back to the table, the pen, the word, the work over and over. And in this position, prostrate before the altar of our Divine purpose, I come in gratitude. Letting it flow from a place where the mental stream blocks off chatter and opens to imagination, inspiration, and something better than all, that next perfect flow of words that come forth from the natural source.

Finding time, making quiet places within and around us, and flowing in and out of the streams that we travel from day to day…all great gifts of a writer’s life. As I look at this essay, I see my little duck moment once again. We sometimes believe that turning points and grand finales arrive with a flash of lightening or a major change we choose or that is thrust upon us. For me the turning point times are marked by the most simple moments of awareness. What has spoken to you?


One thought on “Silence and Connection: What a Writer Needs

  1. Catherine, what speaks to me is how imperative my own need for quiet is. You write so beautifully about the need for quiet to be able to create, along with the need to interact with people who mirror and support you. Proust and his five rooms made me laugh out loud.


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