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  • Writer's pictureAnne Hodges White


…there is a silence, not filled too quickly, lest the response be shallow, ordinary, known. Go there with a new question … go there.

The spotlight’s on in the backyard; the light in the bedroom’s off. I watch the wind, made visible by snowflakes. Expect 8 to 10 inches tonight, we’re told.

The word driven comes to mind–snowflakes driven down like rain, perpendicular. Or pulled down like gravity on meteorites–white, dragging their neon ribbons. Then a change in the mind of the wind: snowflakes waft like May flies in a swarm, short-lived. Then that testy wind laughs. A cyclone in white explodes in silence.

I think of other silent spaces.

There’s the silence in some books. In Marilynn Robinson–I’m thinking of Home or Giliad–and I imagine her writing new lines early in the morning, before she uses language for anything else. No talking, no listening to others talk, no listening to herself talk. You know, that associative chatter in the head. Just stillness. Essential to craft. She places pockets of potential silence at the end of sentences, of paragraphs. Can you see them?

But, in case you haven’t noticed, not all books have silence written into them.

Not in the Paula Fox novel I borrowed from the library to read over the holidays. I had not thought: you have to be looking for an intense experience–crowded, loud on the page, no space. Look for energy and terrifying dysfunction in Fox’s characters. The reader is in awe, but wrung out. Nor is there silence in Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories. Being haunted by troubled characters long after midnight isn’t what I call silence. It’s art, but silence it is not.

For silence when I need it–which is often–I pull out a dog-earred Mary Oliver or a highlighted Stanley Kunitz or a serene Rumi. Is there a more silent poem that Oliver’s “Whelks” … the found shell that has been “traveling under the sky-blue waves for a long time.” Or Kunitz’s belief that the “Mind’s acres are forever green.” But Rumi is the master: “The flute reed remembers the marsh of its birth.”

And in my own writing, I reread those moments of stillness lest they be discarded in the returning noise.

“… outside my writing room window, the pealing limbs of the sycamore bring to mind a molting, a sloughing off, an uncovering of heartwood. Bark, thin as parchment on which history has been written in ancient languages. A hawk’s shadow races across the lawn on the north side, dimming the light in my room for a terrible moment. I am brought to attention–a call to wonder and to the vastness of deep silence.”

Of course there’s silence of the good mind, working hard at writing. My John Truby scaffolding–created large here on my dining room table to unscramble a troublesome manuscript, to show me the way–looks like an Excel spreadsheet. Because it is. It’s how I wrestle the too-big, too-far-flung to the maybe-manageable. It begins in noise. Then I see this: at the end of every Truby question, there is a silence, not filled too quickly, lest the response be shallow, ordinary, known.

Be still! These silences are new each time. Be there for them, I say to myself, and listen. And go there with your new question. Go there.


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