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On Silence

A few weeks ago, I wrote a little piece about silence--a condition I found myself embracing despite its obvious impracticality for the writing life. With the exception of that brief essay, I had not written anything for nearly two months. My novel was (and is) finished, and though I had several ideas to explore in essays, I was choosing not to write them down. Here is what I wrote back in mid-November.

I have been thinking about silence lately. Which is a strange situation for a writer to be in, used as I am to communicating in some way all of the time. At the same time, while thoughts of silence weigh in my mind, I have been surrounding myself with music, blasting my tunes in my car, stuffing my ears with headphones. I have been immersing myself in music while thinking, thinking, all the time, about silence.

The music is only there, of course, as a way to drown things out, and despite the way it fills my environment, my head, with sound, it has the eventual effect of keeping things unsaid. I sing along, loudly, saying other people’s words, not my own.

I’ve been mindful, thus, of things I would write but won’t, essays I could write but choose not to. For I am choosing silence, not being forced into it. This all becomes a question of considering whether I should express certain insights and observations, or whether it’s enough to have had them. There’s the impulse to share a discovery or an idea--I love the essay form (as this little piece might attest) and find I learn from the process of writing in that mode--but do I have to write an essay just to confirm my newfound wisdom on a particular subject or experience?

A writer’s answer to that question is supposed to be yes. Especially now, when a writer must be present, visible, audible on all platforms at all times--when we memoirize and confess and reveal so much about ourselves to the wider world. And yet there are always questions of audience, of that wider world that may or may not care, that may or may not be affected by what we write, and of the narrower world whose boundaries overlap so closely with our own in a Venn diagram of identity.

So I find myself in a strange and not uninteresting situation, in which I keep these essays in my head, held inside by the music I keep playing and singing over them. It’s not a bad thing. In this self-imposed quiet, I find myself turning the ideas over in my mind like pebbles to examine, and this feels like something useful. I’m beginning to wonder if some good, some writerly good, may come from resisting the impulse to express. I wonder if silence can deepen the ideas in some way so that, while they might never emerge as essays, they might enrich some other writing enterprise of mine, some novel down the line.

I’ve emerged from my silence--to the extent that I’ve returned to audiobooks and NPR in my car, and I’ve found a novel to read that I don’t keep setting aside. The spoken and written word are back in my life. But I know that I learned a tremendous amount from that period of relative quiet. I think about that silence in this time of year when expressions of gratitude and joy fill the air, and when other sentiments dive deep beneath the happy din. I’m not suggesting that we refrain from expressing our joy or gratitude, but rather that we remember to quiet down so that we can think and so that we can listen for the softer sounds around us.

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About the Author

Henriette Lazaridis' debut novel The Clover House was published by Ballantine Books in April 2013 and was a Boston Globe best-seller and a Target Emerging Authors pick. Her work has appeared in publications including ELLE, Narrative Magazine, Forge, Salamander, the New England Review, The Millions, The New York Times online, and the Huffington Post and has earned her a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Grant. She has degrees in English from Middlebury College, Oxford University where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and the University of Pennsylvania where she earned a Ph.D. She taught at Harvard for ten years before leaving academia to turn to writing. In the summers, she runs the Krouna Writing Workshop in northern Greece (www.krounawritingworkshop.com).

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