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

The Imagined Tiger

Sometimes I simply wonder, does everything have to mean something?

The shootings in Arizona scream out for commentary, and there is plenty of it already.  I think David Gergen’s piece, “No Time for Finger Pointing,” does an excellent job of acknowledging some possible contributing factors to the horrible event, but also of asking for a time-out on blame casting and causality theories.

When bad things happen, we need to find cause and fix blame.  It must comfort us in some way to think that hindsight will surely demonstrate some kind of rational explanation that will stop the violence.

I’ve reached a point in my life where I no longer go through this process, because the process has failed me too many times.  There will always be random and unforeseen destructive impulses that lurch forth, striking down members of the human family who never saw it coming.

I liked what a local journalist in West Virginia had to say on Twitter: @RyRivard What is almost no one talking about re: shooting? Mental health services in U.S. Why? Probably not sexy enough/too complicated.

Everything there makes sense to me.  Sarah Palin and people of her rhetorical technique aren’t helping anything, but I hardly think it’s rational to suggest they are responsible for what a deranged individual did.  It would be comforting to think if we were all just nicer and more civil to one another in public discourse, unhinged and unstable young men wouldn’t pick up firearms and take out their rage at the world in bloody displays of false courage.  Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work like that.

How does it work?  Obviously, no one knows.  My small contribution to the conversation is this: Sometimes, as hard as it is to swallow, there is no answer.  This has happened before in human history, and it will keep happening, no matter what we do or don’t do.  None of us are so powerful as to legislate or meditate a 180 degree change in human nature across the board.

Get serious about mental health services and yes, gun control laws especially where mental health is at issue.  Don’t get sucked into phony debates about whether the right or the left is to blame for this sad and terrible event.  Be a little less likely to rant and rave, but be willing to disagree and to talk.  And realize, perhaps, that sometimes there is no deep meaning to or clear cause of tragedy.  Someone’s death may be senseless, but that does not mean his or her life was.  Focusing on life is my biggest comfort right now.

As my friend Rick summed up so well in his post Causes and Reasons, we are wired to keep trying to find the patterns, and perhaps that is not such a terrible thing after all.

Often we’re wrong in attributing agency to things that just happen, but in evolutionary terms the consequences of a false positive are not as bad as that of a false negative. Being mistaken in trying to escape an imagined tiger isn’t as costly as not trying to escape from a real one.

Image credit: CNT Photo Illustrations