Tuesday, January 17, 2012


It is said that the brilliant writer, Edith Wharton, wrote in bed. With her Pekinese on the pillow beside her, she would lie back on the pillows, writing in longhand and throwing the finished pages on the floor beside her for a secretary to gather up and type. Marcel Proust, another famously supine author, had the walls of his bedroom covered in cork and reclined with a fur lined coat draped over his legs as he wrote his beautiful words.

Thackeray wrote in hotel rooms.

Thomas Mann, in a chair by the sea.

J. K. Rowling prefers a noisy cafe and Victor Hugo wrote in the nude.

For all my pecadillos, and I have them to be sure, I have found that I really only require one ingredient for optimum concentration when I’m writing, but it’s a vital one. Quiet. Blissful, peaceful, almost Franciscan, quiet. This past week, my lack of, and need for, a quiet state became apparent and a good friend tossed me the keys to her wonderful house in the marshes of South Carolina, telling me to make my way there in haste. Without being told twice, I threw a few old sweaters into a bag, grabbed my laptop, a book or two, my knitting, and fled. Upon reaching the low country, I stopped off at the market for yogurt, celery, Pellegrino and fruit and arrived at my sanctuary just as dark pulled her curtain across the tops of the pines.

And I noticed it as soon as I stepped cross the threshold.

Blessed silence.

Calling my friend to let her know I had arrived, she proceeded to give me instructions on operating the space age electronic system, but I only heard a few words.

Television, docking station.... iPod... Tony Bennett.

I had not the heart to tell her, but I had no intention of turning the thing on at all. Music dancing through the house would perhaps be perfect for a summertime visit, with the windows and doors thrown open and me with nothing to do, no thoughts to think. But this trip was to be different. This trip, I needed to work and to work I needed silence.

It’s been said by those wiser than me that true silence is a sound unto itself. If that’s true, then it is, I’m afraid, a sound we in the modern age rarely, if ever, hear. So akin as it is to solitude, many of us find true silence unsettling and avoid its company whenever possible, preferring instead to fill our hours with a bombilation of sound so profuse it is often difficult to distinguish any individual component. But just as I occasionally thirst for solitude, I also crave silence at times and this week was to be a quiet one, with only Nature’s calming voice in my ears.

I opened the double doors onto the capacious screened porch, and heard a dusky breeze rifling through the palmettos outside, like the rapid turning of the pages in a book. A waterfall of rain hit the roof one morning, a soundtrack so pure it served to focus my thoughts rather than distract them.

The pops and creaks of a settling house when the temperature drops at midnight.

The cry of a hawk sailing over the trees.

The splash of an alligator as it slides down the bank into the pond cross the road.

Hot water running in the bath.

Bubbles in a glass by my chair.

One tiny blossom cut from the newly blooming tea olive as it lost its grip on the branch in the vase and fell like a cottonball to the table beside me.

These were the sounds I began to notice as the week slipped by, inspiring sounds that seem to bestow, rather than steal, creative thought. And my mind, so cluttered and crowded, befuddled and loud when I arrived, was shiny and sharp on the long drive back home. No longer were my thoughts and ideas undisciplined, each one talking over the other in rowdy bids for my attention. Now they politely sat in my head, orderly and accommodating, waiting for my consideration.

Dear Virginia Woolf once advised that a woman requires “money and a room of her own” in order to write. I would respectfully add a wee bit of silence to that equation.

After this week, I highly recommend it.

“True silence is the rest of the mind.

It is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.”

William Penn

1644 - 1718


A marvelous book on living with silence was written a couple of years ago by Sara Maitland, entitled Book of Silence. Included in her experiences with silence, she describes a forty day solitary stay on The Isle of Skye that I find both courageous and, occasionally, utterly tempting.