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Thursday, August 11, 2011

In Praise of Silence

Summer is almost over.  In Phoenix, we read the signs of the waning season not by looking at the temperature but by the annual rites of approaching autumn: a dawn that seems to come a little later than sooner, school buses back on the streets, moisture hanging, heavy in the air.

For me, it's time to get back to my campus. I am fortunate in that I truly love my job, my colleagues and my students.

However, as I return to work, I will miss the long silences of my Phoenix summer. Those times when my mind turns inward towards itself. I will miss those silences which safe-guard my imagination and allow ideas to unfold in my mind. Miss bits of internal sounds which, with some attention, soon turn into words.  Miss those words which will demand some kind of arrangement on the page.

One of the many discussions I  always have with my creative writing students centers about their own creative process. Often, I will point out to them how, as our friend William Wordsworth writes, "the world is too much with us."

I point to how our American culture seems always "on." That we are always listening, watching, reading, talking, texting....we American exhaust ourselves in our interactions with each other.  Fill up your car at the station, and there is a video playing on top of the store's gas tank. Go get a cup of coffee, and there is not one but several TV's turned on. Just try and go food shopping and avoid the one-sided cell phone conversations which always seem louder to me than probably they really are. Walk down the street--any street--or on the beach--or into the forest--or whatever--and you can not help but see the tops of people's heads as they bend, prayer-like--over their cell phones.

 I'm not saying these interactions are anything other than what they are--the human community busy interacting with each other.

All I'm saying is that something gets lost in all this busy-ness when we misplace the pockets of silence that can speak to us. Then it becomes too easy to disconnect with and from our own unformed thoughts. Then it becomes even easier to disrespect these musings and mullings which are so very necessary to creation.

A standard beginning creative writing exercise I used in my college classes will begin with me dimming the lights, asking students to put down their pens--or, these days, to close their computers--and simply be.

I ask them to breathe slowly. I ask them to close their eyes. I ask them to listen to the silence.

Then--and only after what must seem like a very, very long time but is, in reality, not more than 3-5 minutes of semi-dark silence--I ask my students to write whatever comes into their minds. "Fill up the page," I say. "Don't stop writing until I tell you to stop," I say.  I give them about 10-12 minutes to accomplish that task.  Afterward, I ask for volunteers who will read what they have just written.

Almost always everyone in my class will read something.

And the writing which grew out of our humble shared moments together will always be different. Often, quite wonderful. Usually, the writing has a kind of power and depth found only when writers are being authentically human.

This is an exercise I have been using for more years then I care to report. I have used this exercise with graduate, undergraduate and non-credit students. I have used this exercise with older adults--some of whom have advance degrees-- and teenagers some of whom are still in High School. I used this exercise with students outside the discipline of creative writing. I have used these exercise with colleagues.

And always,  always I am amazed at what the miracle of silence can produce.

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