Silence has value. It’s easier to appreciate the power of silence in movies. I was maybe twenty, home from college, surfing channels as my mother stepped out the door for an evening with her friends, which left me alone in the house. All I knew was I didn’t want a horror movie. No, I did not. One could say I suffered from too much imagination. I don’t know what, if anything specific, I was looking for on TV that day, but it probably wasn’t a comedy, either. I have to be in the mood for a comedy. Something engrossing, though. After a while, I happened upon a compelling scene already in progress and stopped surfing. Good cinematography. It was dusk, a farm of some sort. No people in the shot, so I was waiting for people to show up and wondered where they were. There was something odd about the situation: no sound. My pulse started to go up. I checked if the mute was on. Stalks of corn, in rows… hey…
In horror films, there’s the silence of the unguarded moment and the silence of fear. When I was a small child, I was prone to vivid nightmares, some of them waking, even though I was also the sort of toddler who happily crawled out of her crib to play in a dark closet in the middle of the night with its door closed. Go figure. A love-hate relationship with sensory deprivation, then. But because of having experienced terror – though it was an imagined terror — I have an idea of how a kid hell-bent on survival might react. I know how to keep quiet, how to play dead, breathing so quietly and shallowly that my chest hardly rises, not moving a muscle except to open my eyes as slowly as is humanly possible. Sudden movements are easier to notice.
You know, when I think about it, it’s funny. At various times in my life, I’ve received praise for my bravery, for acts I didn’t think of as particularly brave at the time, and I can’t help wondering if facing all that fear while young helped.
Another tool of horror is clamor – think “drink night out” in a strange town, or talking loudly – which taps into a different human instinct, one that sort of runs the other way: sometimes when we’re afraid, we want to make a lot of noise. Why? Maybe to feel as if we own a place, or perhaps as a way to own it, to fill it, or maybe it’s like stomping on overgrown grass near salt marshes, which is important to do in early spring to scare away the sleepy water moccasins.
But silence doesn’t have to be about horror, obviously. It can be about tranquility.
Silence is all about the moment. I remember the silence of a particular day in my late twenties, in an old duplex I loved, where I lived by myself. I sat on a low stool in my hall in front of a huge leaky gas space heater, and gazed off into the white-walled living room and its twin front windows, at the blue sky behind the glass. A long slow, exhale. No thoughts to chase one another in my head, nobody to see, just a vague and pleasant sense of hopeful anticipation. A novel lay turned down across my lap, and a cold cup of tea sat on the floor. My hand ached from holding the book up to my face. What a powerful sense of the present that was. I still feel it.
I tend not to listen to music when I edit, but when I do, I try to listen to music that’s compatible with the story, and only long enough to put me in the right mode. A story must have its own music, and when I listen to other music, I risk not paying attention to what the story lacks and needs. I may think the music’s in there when it isn’t quite in there yet.
I like to read multiple books at once. Some say that’s hard for them to do or uncomfortable – noisy, perhaps? – and that it interferes with their enjoyment. I understand what they mean. But for me, it’s like chatting with friends, different one-on-one encounters, where I learn a little bit more about each as I go along. Not only am I okay with this, but it’s important to my work. The famous middle-grade author Judy Blume said in an interview I caught a snippet of once that she never reads when she’s drafting a book. She reads as much as she wants but only between projects. She was laughing as she said this, as if embarrassed, but I get it. My solution has been to read books by authors with wildly different styles, including non-fiction, especially when editing. It helps me guard my style. If I read only one author, say, something written for young adults or a 19th-century classic, “monkey-see monkey-do,” and my style will start to shift in that direction, and that is usually not what I want. We write what we read. If you asked me what advice I’d give someone just starting out, for what it’s worth, I’d say read as much as you can of what inspires you, but if you want to cultivate your own style, eventually you may want to try reading different genres and styles at the same time. Your brain will perform a little magical alchemy, all on its own. Trust your brain, but feed it appropriately.
So, what stumps me? What slows me down? Too much noise. When quiet, our imaginations flare up. In my opinion, too much chatter, in a certain light, is more likely an indication of deep-seated fear. As with the snake, a warning.
Interestingly, in fiction, an author can create the impression of silence without actually being silent. She could have her character pay more attention to his surroundings in some protracted way. Meanwhile, his thoughts and feelings will likely become more insistent, louder — and more coherent. A character thrust into a noisy, chaotic situation is apt to be reactionary, nervous, and outwardly focused, because that’s what real people do.
Of course, stuff must happen. Silence is a setup, a place from which to pivot. In this day and age, it is special and needed, even craved. So, I think learning how to effectively communicate silence in fiction, with gravitas, may be of tremendous value. My undergrad creative writing professor used to tell us, paraphrasing Beethoven, “What I love most about music is when it’s not.”