I have trouble with silence.
Even when I’m alone, I have a tendency to talk to myself, or hum, or sing. When I’m with somebody else, it’s even worse. Silence makes me nervous. It’s a mystery I can’t solve, a dark, calm surface under which there may quite possibly be monsters. The longer it stretches out, the more certain I become that the silence itself is the monster, and it must be slain.
I’m not above mindless babble in such situations. Extreme circumstances call for extreme measures.
Sadly, my discomfort with silence is not limited to actual conversations.
One morning, in the thin space between sound asleep and fully awake, a character introduced herself to me. She was compelling, shy, searching, and absolutely fully formed. With the remnants of sleep still clinging to me, I grabbed my journal and wrote down what she’d said. As her words poured out of me, a tiny story, a whole lonely life, took shape on the page. I wrote the first draft of my very short story “Invisible” in about half an hour. It was also the final draft.
At the time, I was writing regularly for an online (now defunct) magazine called Making Me. As soon as I finished writing, I typed it up and emailed it to my editor there. I was excited. I’ve always been more of a rewriter than a writer; this was the first (and only) time a story has come to me like that.
The editor, who never took more than a day to get back to me, was silent for almost a week. I went from elated to crushed. By the time he called me to say he loved the piece, I’d convinced myself it was shit. I beat myself up for sending it. Of course it wasn’t ready; it was a first draft! What was I thinking?
I worried that it would ruin my credibility with the editor. I wondered what had ever made me think I was a writer in the first place. Never mind the creative writing degree, the publications up until then, the fact that I’d already written several pieces for Making Me. In the absence of a response, I went into full existential crisis mode.
In the end, I was so relieved to hear he liked the piece, I hung up the phone and cried.
There are other examples. Cheryl Strayed took more than a nanosecond to get back to me after I screwed up the courage to ask her for an interview on the day she outed herself as Dear Sugar. In the couple of days between my request and her (warm, reassuring) acceptance, I was convinced she was trying to find a nice way to tell me that she was a little too busy with Oprah and Vogue to talk to me, and maybe I should run along and find some t’s to cross and i’s to dot.
Met initially with silence, I assumed the worst about a pitch I made in January, the last book review I submitted, and the last invitation I extended for a Creativity Interview. The answer was yes , eventually, every time, but in the silence before the yes, I was sure I’d been judged and found wanting. My husband, Chad, with his annoying tendency toward sanity and reason, suggested each time that maybe the person I was waiting to hear from hadn’t seen my note yet. “Maybe they’re on vacation,” he said. “Maybe they’re swamped. Maybe they don’t check their email a hundred times a day.” (See what he did there?)
On some level I always know he’s right about this, but I’m never comforted.
I have trouble with silence.
And it’s not just me.
In Justine Musk’s post, “dating + the(un)disturbed mind,” she tells the story of her beautiful friend’s panic when the man she’s just gone out with doesn’t call or text after their date. She wonders if she wasn’t funny enough, charming enough, if she talked too much, or maybe too little. In essence, she tries to figure out what she did wrong. Justine (in a very Chad-like speech) tells her friend that anything could be happening with the guy, maybe his non-response has nothing to do with her. “Maybe there’s an on-again off-again relationship that just got switched on again. Maybe he’s going to Spain. Maybe he got trapped beneath something heavy.”
In Dani Shapiro’s post, “On Armor” she tells about a woman in the back row of one of her readings. Every time Dani looks at her, the woman literally – demonstrably – rolls her eyes. “A full eye-roll, heavenward. Her body language said: I’m not buying it. It said, I’m bored to tears, when will this be over?” Despite the rest of the audience’s obvious interest and rapt attention, Dani fixates on the eye-roller, and in the absence of words, wonders what she’s doing wrong.
Recently, I complained to someone I love about Facebook’s algorithm for deciding who of my friends’ updates I should see. “I want to see them all,” I said. “I’ll decide who to hide.” My friend surprised me by asking if I’d hidden her. “Of course not,” I said, but that’s when it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen any of her updates in weeks. In the absence of any comments from me, she’d worried that I’d hidden her.
There are times, I’m sure, when silence is golden, but there are also times when it’s gray and murky and unnerving. I asked my husband how he does the magic that he does, always assuming the best – that people like him, or that they’re trapped under something heavy – and he said, “Why wouldn’t I assume the best? It’s just as easy as assuming the worst, and, really, it’s hardly ever the worst.”
True. Well, not the “just as easy” part, but he’s right about how rarely my worst-case scenarios come true.
So, I’m trying to assume the best, and I’m also trying to focus on action.
Steven Pressfield in The War of Art says, ““We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.” I think that’s right, and I think it applies not only to our work, but to our love lives, our friendships, our hobbies, our virtual communities. I think, as much as possible, we have to do what we do because we want to, because it makes us happy or healthy or fulfilled or prosperous, or – best reason of all – because we simply can’t not do it.
I think if we focus on the stuff (the people, the things, the work, the art) that lights us up inside, we won’t worry so much about what the occasional silences mean. We’ll assume the best because that’s what people do when they’re all lit up inside.
That’s my theory, anyway. What do you think?
In other news, I’m still doodling love, with a personal goal to let my doodles run more wild. If you’re doodling too (or will before next Thursday), send me your creations and I’ll post them with mine next week.