On Silence

Edith, on the frigid North Shore

As we head into busy, noisy holidays, my thoughts turn to silence.

Photograph of Amesbury Friends Meeting worship room by Edward Garrish Mair.

I am accustomed to silence. I have been a Quaker for twenty years. We sit joined in silence on Sundays, only occasionally broken by a message someone among us feels moved to share. Not everyone is comfortable with this form of worship. At one time I brought someone to Meeting who fidgeted his way through the hour. He’d been raised a high Episcopalian, and church for him meant somebody else creating an hour full of sound and activity.

At home, we hold hands before meals for a moment of silence, which for me is always filled with blessing and gratitude, and which I usually want to continue for longer than my hungry partner does.

When I walk, I don’t listen to music or news through earbuds and I rarely walk and talk with others. While it’s not exactly silent, I have the birds and rustling leaves to cushion rivewalkfallwhatever thoughts might arise out of the quiet solitude; sometimes those thoughts are plot inspiration, which only happens when I’m out alone. I treasure my long walks up Powow Hill or out along the Powow River on the rail trail.

Silence is perhaps most valuable when I’m writing, though. I live with someone who is fond of playing music from his large and eclectic CD collection pretty much all the time. We also both like to listen to NPR news and talk shows.

But I find that I have to turn it all off (and ask him to turn the music volume down) when I want to write fiction. I need to hear the characters’ voices, to be able to heed their thoughts and intentions. For this, it has to be quiet. Preferably I’m alone in the house, but living with IMG_2925a self-employed person, that doesn’t happen very often. I’m fortunate to have a lovely office of my own with a door that closes tight, though. And I use it!

Oddly, I am able to write in coffee shops. Maybe it’s so much bustle that it turns into white noise.

(A version of this post appeared on my first blog in 2010.)

Readers: What about you? Do you need quiet for your creative endeavors? Do you prefer a bustling noisy surround? Or a mix tape?

30 Thoughts

  1. I write in the kitchen when the house is empty; I plot and practice dialogue when I’m giving the dogs long walks, or weeding my garden. I’m usually able to resolve perplexing plot problems wielding a hoe.

  2. Hi, Edith,
    I’m with you on needing silence to write. Fortunately, being hard of hearing has turned out to be a big help when the husband is home and has the TV or music on in the next room. I just pop the hearing aids out and quiet descends😊 That also works when I’m the one watching TV and one of those particularly annoying commercials comes on.


  3. What a lovely posting. Early in the morning for me is a good time – 4:30 AM. The house is quiet, just the dog and me. Something about carving out precious quiet time that I learned over the years as a working mother of four. Later in the day, I like to work with music on – not loud, but I’m conscious of the sound and it adds value to whatever I’m doing. Right now I have some dulcimer CD’s from a Star Island musician that I’ve been playing.

  4. I go to the country in Ireland when I want silence: no cars, no planes, no constant background hum of voices and music. Removing those constant distractions forces you to slow down and pay attention to the little things, to admire small details.

    I used to be able to listen to classical music (instrumental only) when I wrote. Now I need silence so I can hear the voices in my head.

  5. I like to write when it is mostly quiet. Background noises like cars on the street or rain on the roof seem to make no difference but I don’t write with music on and lose focus if I can hear my loved ones around.

  6. I like silence – I will occasionally turn the radio off in the car and just drive. But I grew up in a noisy family. When you have to learn to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata against the backdrop of three younger siblings (who have no concept of silence), you deal with it. As a result, I can write in total silence or in noise. Once I get engrossed in the story I’m not hearing it anyway!

  7. I usually have music on when I’m working on reviews. I don’t often truly “hear” it, but I have it on. Of course, when I am working on a music review, it is very helpful to have that CD playing. 🙂

    I haven’t charged my mp3 player for months, so my runs have been without music. But I do have traffic and other people sounds and my brain arguing with itself. “You are so stupid for doing this. You should stop. Come on, don’t quite. Half way there. There’s no turning back now.” (And that’s all within 5 seconds of each other.)

    1. Oh, I know the runner’s mindspeak, Mark! Back when I was a runner, of course (completed the Boston Marathon in a little over five hours sixteen years ago, ahem…). It’s much more mind than legs, isn’t it?

      1. Sounds like we run about the same pace. If I ever ran a marathon, I’d finish around the five to five and a half hour mark.

        There is so much mental about running it isn’t even funny. Including the days I think I’m mental to go run.

  8. I love silence. No radio, TV, noise of any kind during the day when I am at home working. I do like to listen to music when I walk, and best is when I can chat with my walking friend. My best outside creative time is raking leaves, shoveling snow, or gardening. Then I like silence.
    I was raised RC, church every Sunday with lots of singing and music. I find the idea of Quaker silence intriguing, but I’m not sure I could sit for an hour in silence without fidgeting. So I guess you should never invite me to your Meeting. 🙂

    1. Ramona – you should come once. We all fidget in our way, at least, I do. No idea how the people who sit in one position for an hour pull it off!

  9. I need it quiet when I write at home. Definitely no music, which seems to engage a different part of my brain than writing and competes too much for brain air time. But like you, I can write in a coffee shop or at the library, and the noise and commotion don’t bother me. I think the difference is that in a public place, the space and the people have no claim on me. They don’t expect me to clean it, or to cook or do laundry for them–at least I hope they don’t, or they will be very disappointed, LOL!

  10. There’s not much silence in my world…but I had to write with a scanner blaring when I worked in a newsroom, so I had to learn to tune everything out to focus.

    1. I think tuning out is key, Liz. And much noise is easier than occasional odd noises, for me, or for the beat of music coming up through the floorboards. (Ahem…)

  11. I can write with noise or without. For thinking, though, instrumental music or music with lyrics I don’t pay attention to can be quite stimulating. I had a 4.5 hour track at my old office that was classical and Sarah Brightman. On low volume so it didn’t distract anyone else in the office, I would get so intensely into writing reports, grants, emails-you name it-that my colleagues were amazed. I’d totally lose track of time and get it all done without distraction.

    For my fiction writing, I can even write with the TV on, but find it beneficial to shut everything off sometimes and let the characters speak to me.

  12. Lovely post, you write so well. You had me along the river with you. I like to listen to the news and to music, but I do love silence. A lot rises up at those times.

Comments are closed.