This Writer's Life: Silence

The Faulkner Portable: Gary Bridgman

A dark cloud. Thick fog. Something stops the writing. From within. From without. The mouth, tense. Hands, idle. I stare without focus—out the window, perhaps, or at the spines of books in shelves.

Time passes. I’ve not written a word. And yet this is what I’d come to the table to do.

What was I thinking? Where did I go? 

Emily Dickinson:

From Blank to Blank –

A Threadless Way

I pushed Mechanic feet –

To stop – or perish – or advance –

Alike indifferent – 

It feels like that.

Some years ago, I decided that writer’s block didn’t exist, because if what we do when we write is to follow our thought, and if thought never really stops, then there is always something to follow—always movement—forward, backward, into any number of digressions or circles. Somewhere.

So it’s not that.  Not quite.

A decision, maybe. A withdrawal. Choosing not to speak. Or the uncanny sense that something, someone else has chosen.

From within or without.

2001. I finished a book that summer in New Mexico and packed everything up the end of August to drive back to Maine. I knew my next project. I was going to resume work on a novel I’d started earlier, set in St. Louis in the 60s and 70s, those politically charged years of black militants, draft resisters, and lesbian separatists. In my last year of high school, radicals burned down the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps Building at Washington University and the American Nazi Party threw bricks through the windows of the most important bookstore in the Central West End because the owner was a Jew.

I was still unpacking and getting re-settled in the house on Pine Street on the morning of September 11th. The manuscript remained in the plastic file bin marked: Current Writing Projects.

I have yet to resume work on it. I brought it West with me when I moved. In the same plastic bin marked Current Writing Projects. Only recently have I begun to wonder about what stopped me from picking up the novel again. What, in fact, prevents me now?

A decision perhaps. Simply choosing not to speak. In fact, another writing project engaged my full attention for the rest of the time I lived in Maine.

Or something, someone else had chosen. From within. From without. 

Writers are often silenced by the State or the Church. Or by economic circumstances. Tillie Olsen’s 1978 book, Silences, comes to mind. In it she explores the silences imposed upon women and working-class writers, “not natural silences, that necessary time for renewal” but “the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being but cannot."

I think I’m talking here of a silence imposed from within, which may well collude with outward circumstances. 

A friend back East tells me that a bad depression sits heavy on her chest, and she cannot write. I wonder what her Writer’s Mind and the Bad Depression might have to say to each other if they could speak.

And what might Silence say to me? But surely Silence would not talk. How then do I know when silence occurs in me? A blank stare. Something in the throat. A dry cough. The mouth opens. Then closes, does not speak. One thought and then another—unspoken. Not written.

Robert Bly:

It will not come closer—

the one inside moves back, and the hands touch nothing, and

   are safe.

Is it safety, then?

Or some kind of dumbfounded perplexity, an overwhelming grief in the face of the World?

Maybe tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep. Early in the morning, before the work that pays the rent begins. I’ll return to the table, open the notebook, pick up a pen. Turn again toward the world and wait for it to open. 

One thought will lead to another. Writing will resume itself in me. And what wants to come into being will once again struggle to emerge.

Tomorrow. Maybe.

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