In a Quiet Room Alone: The Artist and Silence

Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker. Source.
"I've begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it."
~Chaim Potok

"But the article isn’t talking about silence so much as it’s referring to peace. A peace that can actually be had in the midst of barking and birds and whatever other sounds fill your day, but can’t be had on Facebook, or on the phone, or in front of the television. It’s conversation, and the conversation hybrids that slip in through the media that break the silence. Maybe because our minds want to treat them like a real discussion, and who can create art in the middle of a conversation?"

The article Masha refers to is a short post by FASO founder Clint Watson, wherein he says to beware the geeks:
If there is indeed a correlation between silence and creativity, then beware of what we, the geeks, have created.  We've built Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and many other services that are designed to tap into the same part of your brain that addicts people to slot machines... The best way to sell art is to produce art that is so good they can't ignore you.  To do that, you need to spend time quietly......the opposite of what the best tech minds of our generation are trying to get you to do.
Artists possess a motherly little instinct for withdrawal and nesting in order to create. Among other things, we look for security, often for small or at least protected spaces, comfort, and—most relevant to today's post—peace and quiet.

As Masha notes, it's not always about silence proper. Some people admit to having difficulty working in actual silence, preferring some sort of cacophonic life or white noise around them. I'm not one of those, but they're out there. Regardless of noise levels, however, I've identified several primary rivals to silence in my own life.

Thanks to social media and notification systems, distracting conversation may be the largest problem. Email sucks attention away from work any time an unread message pops up in the inbox. Twitter requires its faithful users to maintain a near-constant semiconscious state of attempting to be witty. Facebook can be entered and escaped more easily; that is, if one can only avoid arguments.

Competing narrative also causes difficulties. All art works with narrative, but fiction is composed entirely of it and is vulnerable to every attack. And narrative is everywhere. Angry political or religious debates involve the stories we tell ourselves. Everything that comes out of a television appeals to us through story, commercials included. Everything on the internet, likewise. Even music invokes story, especially when there are lyrics.

Without reference to content, the styles used by other writers and even artists of other media can have a subtle intrusive impact on an artist's own style. This is how influence develops, but it can also cause problems. With time and practice, we usually outgrow the tendency to absorb sentence structure and vocabulary usage on contact, but listening to Mozart reputedly helps people perform better on tests; it would shock me if listening to a lot of very simple commercial music or reading mostly weak writing didn't have a negative effect on creativity.

Then there's the simple matter of conflicting rhythms or melodies or simple noise. For instance, trying to write good prose around popular music is a lot like trying to hum a different song than the one currently blasting from the speakers. It takes ten times the concentration to find the melody, and it's next to impossible to keep it, and it doesn't matter how skilled you are—it just makes the work harder than it needs to be.

Those who swear by writing to music usually find it helpful in setting mood, because powerful, immediate concerns of thought or feeling can jerk a text around—if not halt progress entirely. A writer can and should learn to work around moods, but sometimes intervention is necessary. Half the work of being an artist is escaping the world enough to look at it from a distance, to observe and create from a coherent perspective.

For the above reasons, I don't have or desire a television, I rarely listen to music during working hours, and I try—not always successfully—to keep my internet excursions light and short. I don't have a Smartphone, refuse myself the temporary glee of starting various niche blogs, restrict the frequency of events on my calendar, and should probably consider buying Freedom. And I'm learning ways to quiet myself: a walk through the garden, a little piano time, a carefully-created meal or a re-read of a trustworthy book.

Silence, perhaps more than ever before, is a skill which must be learned. The internet and traffic noise and angry politics are unlikely to go away, but their influence can be controlled, and the worst of them avoided. Art depends upon it. And so, I find at times, does sanity.


  1. I agree, but that doesn't stop me from being sad that you do deny yourself "the temporary glee of starting various niche blogs". If we all had a good five or six hours of spare time each day, the internet would be full of Fantastic niche blogs.

    I love that you mentioned the ways in which you take time for quiet. We do need those things, for certain. Even life lived away from the noises of t.v. and the busyness of an outside job is full of little noises that grow.

  2. So, the funny thing about this post is that I just couldn't concentrate this afternoon, so I wound up listening to music while I worked on my book. Not pop music! But music nonetheless. :P

    Masha, the various niche blogs would act on me like Twitter. I'd be in a constant state of trying to be witty! But in the thrill of the moment, it is always SO tempting. I have to remind myself that my one blog takes me a average of two hours per post, low estimate. As I hope to have a clean house and cooked food for my husband and finished novels of my own, I have to limit myself to the one. ;)

  3. Reading your post recalls to mind a gem of a book that I taught one semester. It's by Anne LeClaire and Called Listening Below the Noise. Here's the amazon link for it:


    I think that you'd simply love it!

    1. Carrie-Ann, I haven't read it, but I definitely love her idea of going totally silent for days now and again!

    2. But there's no audiobook version available. ;)

  4. I do too! I might do that..not silent as in not talking, but media silent, no computer, no radio(!), no facebook discussions that distract me from EVERYTHING all day, no phone calls.. I like this idea, I just don't know if I'd be able to pull it off!


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