In Defense of Silence, or Not Saying Much About Recent Muchness

I just returned from a writers’ conference where I participated in my first-ever group critique.  In this exercise, other writers who have read your work provide oral (and later written) criticism of your writing.  Depending on how the reviewers feel, one may hear high praise, serious complaints against style and content, or some middle ground feedback.  Though it is customary for the writer whose work is being reviewed not to be permitted to speak, I was allowed to speak but with these strict instructions:

You may not defend your work.  You may answer questions, but if I hear you defending your work you will be asked to stop speaking.”

It was a tremendously valuable exercise, and both easier and more difficult than I anticipated.  I received some important responses to my fiction, but the most mind-shifting element was simply to listen and process what other writers told me about my writing.  I learned, for example, that my knowing that a character was dead did nothing to change the fact that readers who did not know she was dead felt I was writing her as “disconnected.”  Well, yes, because she’s dead…..but that’s a defense.  The reader doesn’t know that, he or she just knows a character is not working for them and they are losing interest.  I will be maintaining the existing plot but also developing an entirely new approach to the narrator.

Why am I telling you this?

Going through this experience a couple of days before the U.S. military found and terminated Osama Bin Laden and listening to the national chatter afterward has me thinking about “defending.”

September 11 made us a nation of defensive people, and it’s child’s play to understand why.

At the same time, it seems ironic that the defensiveness is turned inward for some reason.  There appears to be more concrete animosity between groups of American citizens than between Americans and anyone else.  It worries me that without an external enemy we somehow have become so hyped up on fear and anger that we create fights at home to expel rage we have been unable to purge for a decade onto the most culpable source of our grief.

I wonder what life would be like if we all took a couple of weeks to practice not defending, no matter what anyone says to us or implies.  We might hear something we need to hear.

“If our life is poured out in useless words, we will never hear anything because we have said everything before we ever had anything to say.”

— Thomas Merton from Thoughts on Solitude

Image credit: Into Great Silence

6 thoughts on “In Defense of Silence, or Not Saying Much About Recent Muchness

  1. Once upon a time a group of us San Francisco hippoids decided to see who could remain silent the longest. After about an hour everyone spoke but me. After another hour Sandy Weinstein told me that the longer I went without speaking the harder it would be to speak because most of what i might say would be trivial and could easily go without being said with no big loss. He was right, I sat there trying to think of what to say first that wouldn’t be trivial. Maybe I would ask if anyone understood Schrodinger’s equations but instead I said something trivial and so much so I don’t remember what it was.

  2. I agree! It’s funny because here I’ve started this blog, I’ve explored the world through writing since I was a little boy, yet every time I post something I wonder whether I’ve added something superfluous to that defeaning booming sound we all hear when we turn on the TV or when we open a newspaper, sometimes even when we think we’ve ventured far enough from civilization to have escaped it all.

    I’m far more selective about what I say now than when I was younger. Whereas before I liked to dissect things with words, now I prefer to tell stories (also with words), usually true, but stories nonetheless. I feel more confident sharing a story than I do presenting an argument. Where in the past I would have responded to a lot of questions with paragraphs of analysis, now I’m more inclined to say something quick and to the point. This comment clearly is NOT an example of that inclination :).

    Referring to what Julian said about how difficult it is to say something that isn’t trivial: Sometimes I feel like the most honest thing I can say IS the most trivial thing I can come up with, because I’ve reduced what may have been a long and meandering trivial comment to something concise that betrays the full extent of my ignorance.

    Yet I also write, which means that of course I believe in the value of words.

    You write so well, by the way! I read your “This Ain’t No Foolin’ Around” post and was swept away by your argument and the way you articulated it. 🙂

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