“There is a master way with words which is not learned but is instead developed: a deaf man develops exceptional vision, a blind man exceptional hearing, a silent man, when given a piece of paper…” ― Criss Jami, Venus in Arms
When I first considered this word strike, it was because I was considering participation in this year’s NaNoWriMo and thought it would help. NaNoWriMo, if you don’t know, is the National Novel Writing Month that takes place every year in November where people all over the world are inspired to write a 50,000 word novel between the 1st and 30th. I’ve competed and completed the challenge four previous times, the last time in 2012. There are no rewards, aside from a little certificate you get to post on Facebook that says you’re a winner. What you have written, at least what I have written, is usually pure and unadulterated crap. It’s a first draft, yes, and the only thing that matters to the contest is the actual word count, but some people have had their novels published before (I haven’t) and everyone thinks it’s just a fun thing to do. It’s not. It is hell. It is constant writing. It is constant thinking, scribbling, thinking about words, phrases, rewriting, editing, fleshing out characters, developing plot, moving the story along, all while trying to maintain an output of about 1,650-1,700 words every single day. Miss one day and you’re pretty much screwed. This year was the first time I didn’t write an actual novel. I wrote about my experience with the word strike. I published about half of that on my blog, but the other half was mostly incomprehensible and not fit for print. Still, words nevertheless…
Part of the word strike experiment was to see how my writing would be effected by the silence. Again, I have said this many, many times…I had no expectations about what was going to happen. I was wide open to all the possibilities and was ready to accept whatever came from it. Still, I was surprised by much of what transpired, and in particular, what happened with my writing. The silence seemed to have no effect whatsoever, good or bad. It neither encouraged my creativity nor stunted it. I have always finished the NaNoWriMo contest on the last day, sometimes hours before midnight, and this time is no different. But the writing itself is no better or worse.
“You’d think that silence would be peaceful, but really, it’s painful.” ― David Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson
You can’t know what you will feel about something you’ve never experienced before. You can imagine. You can guess. But you cannot know. This past month nearly all my friends on Facebook posted or sent me in private message a meme about silence. I loved these. For the most part, they were quotes or photos of tranquil scenes in nature. It is the popular opinion that silence is a spiritual, deeply moving and feeling level of connection to the earth and to God and to oneself. It is freeing and empowering. It is philosophical and engulfing and expansive. In the deepest part of my heart and soul, I wanted this. I ached and prayed for this. In the first two weeks of my silence I was dumbfounded that it wasn’t happening. I wondered if I was doing it wrong. Where was that peace? Where was that center, that anchor? Where was that quiet vigilance that was going to provoke keen observation and self-awareness?
The silence was painful, and at times, even agonizing. There were times when the pressure became so sharp and exaggerated, I felt I was going to split apart at the seams. It wasn’t the content of what I wanted to say, or the topic of a conversation, or a question that someone asked that induced this intensity. It wasn’t when someone said something that I had a snappy come-back for, or when someone insulted me and I wanted to unleash and couldn’t respond. It was the silence itself. It was holding my head underwater.
“I’ll tell you now. That silence almost beat me. It’s the silence that scares me. The dead one tried to show me hell, but it was a pale imitation of the horror I can paint on the darkness in a quiet moment.” ― Mark Lawrence, Prince of Thorns
The silence did beat me. I was not silent the entire month of November. For the first two weeks, I spoke twice, both times to my therapist, which had been planned. I also said “Murphy” a few times. There were “accidental” words spoken here and there when I simply forgot that I was not speaking. I thought the biggest obstacle was going to be other people, but it wasn’t.
The difficult moments came from unpredictable incidents for which I was woefully unprepared. First was Robin’s motorcycle accident. This happened on Day 5. For something like this you must seriously weigh your commitment. After a strange conversation with her mother on the phone—where her mom did all the talking and I did a lot of uh-huhs and hmm’s—it was actually Robin’s insistence that all further communication be done by text. The second unpredictable moment happened on Day 14, when I could no longer deny that Donald Trump was the new pResident of the United States. While I imagine his election rendered many millions of people speechless, it unleashed in me a torrent of scorching obscenity and castigation so extraordinary, it took on a life of its own and is currently burning down Gatlinburg.
For this past week, I have had regular conversations with Tracy. There have been long blocks of time when I have not spoken, because I have been writing, but I cannot say I have been silent at all. I said a few words to Kim Duncan. I was able to maintain my silence each time the kids came for Sunday dinner, but I did speak on Thanksgiving. I have also spoken to Robin on a few occasions. Each time I called she answered, “Why are you calling me? Why are you talking?” And yes, I did verbally threaten to kill Tracy Davis on the Skylift when we were in Tennessee.
“You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts; And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime. And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.” ― Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
This quote is perhaps the truest thing I’ve ever read. The poem, the painting, the love letter, the symphony…are never as good as the emotion that gave them life in the first place. There was that muse, that cathartic cerebral arrangement, when you see it, where you dream it, and as soon you put your hands on it, manipulate it into words or notes or brush strokes, the infinite beauty of it disappears as effortlessly as the ash of cremated bone. There is still the product of your creation: the poem, the painting, the song, but the true art was in the birth, in the process. Defining that ends its growth. Talking words, then, are nothing but the chalk outline of your incredible ideas, never measuring up, never quite saying what you mean, falling short and half murdered. This might be why people think there is such heavy, wondrous contemplation and completeness in silence…because it is untainted by words. And this may be true for some people! It just wasn’t for me.
My father used to say, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, then to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” I honestly didn’t find any benefit in this silence. It was frustrating and evoked impatience at every turn. When my therapist and I talked about it yesterday she said, “Would you do it again?” and I answered without thinking, “In a hot minute.”
And I would. But not during an election year. I would have tighter controls in place to stop the accidental speech and I would engage activities that supported and compelled the full engulfment of silence: meditation, walks in the park, sitting by water, weekend camping trips, museums, art galleries…and like this time, there would have to be constant writing. If I had not been writing this entire time, wordlessness would have choked me to death.
My therapist asked me if I thought the experiment was a success and initially I said no. After we talked about it for a while, I realized that I have gotten a lot out of it. I did learn a lot about my comfort levels, about expectations of myself and other people, about my own limitations, my motivation and resolve. Most of all, I learned that silence is not something I can hide behind. I learned that it can be a lie.
Even in these last hours of self-enforced muteness, I feel the words rush up like bubbles to the surface, urgent and effervescent. All this time spent held under flat, unmoving water, I feel it beginning to churn. I feel the motion. I can envision a water spout slowly forming, a darkened circle in the middle of a body of water, developing softly into a dense spray, a cascade, and then growing into a funnel attached to a cloud, a vortex higher than a hundred feet creating wakes and waves and crashing and vortexes…just words, blasting from the unfathomable abyss of silence into a glorious, orchestral dialogue.
For now, I remain quiet…and listen to the rain.