The Sound of Silence


The other day I was at the gym, ready to fire up the podcasts I had lined up for an hour of listening when halfway through the first, I realized I just wasn’t paying attention to a single thing said on the podcast.

Now normally, I would have just pressed the “back 15 seconds” button until I’d found the point I had zoned out, but this time, I made a conscious decision to turn off my phone and run the next five miles in total silence.

Lately, I’ve felt rather crowded in my own head. I don’t necessarily mean my doubts or worries or anxieties (although yes, they’re there too), I mean just…things that are competing for my attention. Audiobooks. Podcasts. Music. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve realized that aside from sleep, there’s hardly a single point in the day when I am NOT engaged with some sort auditory media. I listen to audiobooks and podcasts at my day job, at the gym, during my commute, while I walk the dogs, when I was the dishes, do the laundry, clean the house, etc. The only time I am not listening to something is when I am writing, and even then, I usually have music.

I’d been feeling creatively stoppered and I couldn’t quite figure out why.

Once I’d turned off the podcast at the gym, I understood.

There is value in silence. In boredom. I’d forgotten that. As a child I had spent so much of the dead time between structured things simply imagining. Creating. Daydreaming. Back then, I didn’t have a phone with Twitter, my entire music library, games, etc. Back then, the only thing I had to amuse myself was myself. When I let my phone screen go dark and run in silence, I let my mind go blank. With all the other distractions tuned out, thoughts and ideas about my writing began to bubble up to the surface. I let them bubble and brew, not thinking, not working. When I got home and fired on my computer, I was rejuvenated and for the first time in a long time, the words began to flow.

I’d recently gotten back into my yoga practice, and we traditionally end each class in shavasana, or corpse pose. As my teacher says, it is the easiest pose to do physically, but the hardest pose to do mentally. Often during shavasana, we find ourselves actively thinking, about what errands we need to do next, how many words we’ve achieved, what needs to be done. Letting those active thoughts go, to exist in a state of passive meditation, to focus on the moment, the breath going in, the breath going out, that is much harder.

I find mindfulness on the mat, but had not found mindfulness in other areas of my life. My brain was “on” at all times that it didn’t have room to let my ideas and creativity develop.

The idea hovered and shimmered delicately, like a soap bubble, and [Lyra] dared not even look at it directly in case it burst. But she was familiar with the way of ideas, and she let it shimmer, looking away, thinking about something else.

-Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

So now I don’t fear the silence. I let my commutes, my runs at the gym, my household chores be quiet. My mind is not so crowded, and my thoughts have room to breathe.

What about you? Have any of you discovered that “shutting off” helps your creativity? Are you afraid of boredom? Let us know in the comments!


8 Responses to The Sound of Silence

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Jul 17 2015 at 8:38 am #

    I can’t write if there’s too much going on. Music especially sidetracks my mind. I guess those parts of my brain are too linked. Often when I’m trying to write I start to hear music. I do most of my writing in the morning before anyone else in my family gets up. Drive time is also a fecund period, as I find my thoughts flow with the scenery. I’ve often found an idea in the random flow of thoughts that pushes my book to the next section.

  2. Maria D'Marco Jul 17 2015 at 9:11 am #

    To me, the physical world is meant to be inspiring and day-to-day life the ultimate teacher.

    Currently, the overload of available synthetic input is stupendous and often becomes the weapon of choice in shutting out surroundings that are less than hospitable. The need for distraction from and denial of the environments we deem as ’empty’ is justified through our judgment that such spaces, and the time spent within them, are ‘wasted’ and not worthy of our attention.

    For creative people who operate and partner with their muse, this overload is incredibly stifling. I liken it to the environments we may perceive as stifling and try to block by stuffing our minds and emotional senses with vast amounts of input. We judge the ride on the bus to be unworthy of our attention, but instead of training our minds and awareness to capture the existence of the cracks of the world, where our muse happily exists — we manufacture stimulation (worthwhile! because we decided it was…) and stuff our ears with buds.

    I’m all for selective stimulation to help our minds focus on a peaceful place or to pull ourselves away from the rush and crush of daily operational ‘noise’ that can jam our – well, everything.

    But, I know that if my mind doesn’t have time every day to ‘percolate’, to operate at its natural level of assimilation and cognition — if I demand that it process a constant stream of data (of any kind) — then I become deranged.

    And when I’m deranged, I can’t write.

    We do not have to be constantly ‘engaged’ to be constantly engaged. More stimulation doesn’t necessarily mean we will be more stimulated.

    Of course, the mind will win, eventually… When the realization strikes that you haven’t heard the last bit of podcast, it’s the mind refusing to accept anymore input. It’s the natural reaction to over-stimulation: shut down and let the synapses cool.

    Demanding that the mind ‘obey’ by rewinding and forcing it to pay attention is just this side of torture.

    My question for this wonderful post might be: are you choosing to use synthetic input as a tool to release your mind when surrounded by oppressive environments – or are you torturing your mind with creative-killing stress?

    Thank you, JJ, for the thoughtful and encouraging post.

  3. Kim Jul 17 2015 at 10:24 am #

    I used to have to write to music, but lately it’s been getting in the way. So I’ve been writing in silence for the last week or so, and it’s really helped me get more done. I think I needed to just focus on the story and not on outside stuff like music. (Though, I still put on some lyric-less music whenever I’m revising a scene.) Great post!

  4. Chris Bailey Jul 17 2015 at 10:25 am #

    Yes, and thank you for the post! I use audiobooks when I’m doing simple tasks to try to get around to more titles I want to read, but sometimes I need to shut down and walk the dogs without a trained actor’s voice in my head. That’s when my own characters talk, and when story puzzles solve themselves.

  5. Alexia Jul 17 2015 at 7:20 pm #

    yes! I am stuck in the hospital for a couple of days and minus the kids, the calls, the work and life…it is quiet. And the creativy is there!

  6. Dominic Holmboe Jul 21 2015 at 9:27 am #

    I love to work in silence <3 And I also write in silence, of course.

  7. Jada Jul 28 2015 at 8:41 am #

    I’m also the type to listen to lots of podcasts when I’m doing seemingly mundane tasks, but it always ends up distracting me. So at work, I always listen to podcasts because it’s 4 hours of data entry I could care less about. But when writing or anything past the very early stages of brainstorming, I keep it quiet. I completely understand the value of working in silence, which is why I hardly ever actually write with anything playing except soft instrumental music.

Leave a Reply to Chris Bailey Click here to cancel reply.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.