I pursued Creative Writing and all I got was this lousy life of completely electric silence. The unspoken dialogue, so rich in its stillness. The didactic endnote replaced by white space. The poetic teenagers and the “azure seaside” and the phoenix metaphor — any of the phoenix metaphors — all tangled up and tucked away in some bin I left behind for the next generation of Intro To Short Story.
Now, just silence—but not without a fight.
When I first started writing, the primary goal was to be heard. It was, in its purest form, about proving that I was merely a poem in action, that I was refined enough to speak in inspirational coffee sleeve-isms, that I could (and would) use words that made me sound like somebody smart enough to be on Jeopardy, maybe even smart enough take second place, with some kind of Advil-sponsored lump sum cash prize.
I would never actually win Jeopardy, not even in the hypothetical sense. Creative Writers never win Jeopardy, which might be why we have so many literary awards; we’ve got to win something in some quiet way. Jeopardy is some other feat entirely, reserved for History majors that make the rules and vacation in Cape Cod and eat designer couscous and buy purebred beagles, though that’s a whole other discourse. That’s something else completely. That’s a battle we can fight when we’ve got enough purebred beagles, and we’ll probably never have enough purebred beagles, so what’s the issue really?
Of course, there doesn’t always have to be an issue for there to be a resolution. Somewhere, in a parallel universe, I could still be writing syrupy breakup stories, suspended in static lyricism, and, I assume, somebody would find them remotely engaging — in all of their miserable longing — and the stories themselves could be just fine, too, maybe even likeable or honest or, at the very least, loud and clear. Accessible. That’s the magic word when you first start writing. Accessible.
One of my very first pieces was a shining example of true accessibility. It profiled a typical suburban couple — laced in intellectual overabundance, of course — re-painting a bedroom after they decided to move out and away from one another. It was a clean surface narrative — an acutely organized encounter — yet, somehow, there was very little active painting in the text. No taping or priming or drying period, period. It was, more or less, a constant dialogue between busy hands, on and off the page, as I tried to pack as much conversation into the piece as I could, simply because I was afraid that any sort of uncomfortable silence might give the readers enough time to think for themselves, and, in turn, draw their own conclusions without me. That would be too accessible, I thought, and I remember fearing that — that loss of control, that vulnerable stillness, that amplified space between lover and lover, even though they were, most definitely, defined by the distance between them. The piece was essentially about distance, if it was about anything at all. Still, as many novice writers do, I sacrificed purposeful silence in order to prove myself as an intellectual, which is, by far, the easiest way to destroy potentially great art.
In defense of my fictive issues, however, I will say that it’s incredibly difficult to recognize these purposeful silences, let alone appreciate and apply them. Perhaps they are too abstract to be taught with the right precision in a 50-minute lecture, or maybe less exciting than, say, a lesson in onomatopoeia, but, here, in this space, let us also consider a proven universal truth:
We — regardless of writerly status — are all encouraged to speak, even when nothing really needs to be said. Students are required to say enough of anything for full participation credit, adults-in-training score free burritos if they register to vote, for anyone, for any reason, just because they can so they should, loud and clear. Every reality show has a confessional or a post-interview or an After The Final-Final-Final Rose rationale, because something always has to be said about that very awkward hot tub kiss. Even professional bowling has commentary, and it’s bowling, as do at-home cooking shows, because somewhere, at some point, somebody decided that the only way an audience will understand what’s happening is if the chef says “I’m going to chop this zucchini now, you see, I’m chopping this zucchini now, I’ve chopped this zucchini, and now I’m putting it in a bowl, watch me put it in a bowl…” and on and on, and right on into commercial breaks, campaign ads, post-post-post game commentary.
We are a people that love noise, and we are trained to believe that if we make enough of it, we hold the power; we are more meaningful than those that simply listen, but here is where we sign the lease for a life of electric silence:
We enroll in a Creative Writing class, where we, for the first few years, are encouraged to every single thing we think might need to be said until, in a very quiet moment with a very kind professor, we learn that listening is often a gift. Stillness is anything but boring. Showing trumps telling, observation is pure gold, and, even if the hands are busy, the dialogue is snappy, and the intellect is Jeopardy-worthy, natural silence always outshines decorative language. The process equal parts telling and not telling, writing and unwriting.
Most Great Writers (with a capital G-W) learn this sooner than later — this important skill of purposeful unwriting — and I will admit, I was not a Great Writer for quite some time, as I wanted so badly to create something piercingly profound, that I rarely studied the inexplicable subtlety that all Great Writing embodies.
Think of it this way. If we are to draw Great Writing as a human being, it’s impossibly difficult to render its nuance in a concrete way. Little is know about Great Writing’s upbringing — where he or she was first born — but for all intents and purposes, let us simply assume that (s)he came from a life of deep empathy and observational exactitude. (S)he most likely graduated in the middle of the class, as Great Writing transcends the typical archetype of the fallen hero or the underdog. (S)he probably doesn’t have a wild mustache or a severe bowl cut, as Great Writing pays little attention to fad or fleeting novelty. Great Writing probably went on to intern somewhere while it revised itself for many years, before maybe marrying some other equally mysterious creature made of hopes, dreams, and blinking Microsoft Word cursor heartbeat.
There is also a case to be made for the theory that Great Writing simply went off the grid entirely, after (s)he took a backseat to the popularity of the Twilight series. Perhaps (s)he shares some old cave and a can of beans with a bearded runaway known as Pre-Digital Publishing. Still, all wild speculation aside, the exact curve of Great Writing’s body has yet to be definitively measured or mastered or reproduced. Great Writing is only actively uncovered when spontaneously honest work calls it out of the shadows, and, amidst all of this mystery, one thing is for certain:
Great Writing and Writers never beg for attention. Great Writing and Writers pay attention.
They write what they think they ought to — for the first few years, decades even — until they find the skill or the guts or the humility to write what they want, and, at that point, still, they put it all down. Then they cut it in half. Then they try it again — on their own, for themselves, without agenda or expectation, until, eventually, in a truly transcendent moment of growth, the work becomes just as much about what doesn’t make the page as what does. The artistry evolves into a careful act of writing and unwriting — side by side on the page — and, in turn, the purposeful noise is suddenly amplified by an equally purposeful silence.
Let us now assume that we are the Great Writers, the ones who show, not tell, the ones that write and unwrite. It is in this space — of bewildering revelation — that we learn the greatest lessons about who we are and what we aim to produce — and, ultimately, leave behind. It is there, in that isolated silence, that we learn how to hear what really needs to be said, and how to say it without saying it, and, once we find the quiet rhythms of our own narrative calling, we learn how to overcome the misguided dream of being intellectually untouchable, unconditionally adored, and yes, even universally — wait for it — accessible.
At a certain point, Cape Cod doesn’t seem so impressive, just as the narrative quiet doesn’t feel so unbearably quiet. Readers come and go — editors, too — and leave behind their own interpretive vibrations. You learn to stop controlling the conversation and you start enjoying the listening. Your young lovers drip paint on the once-pristine Berber and neither of them interrupt with a skilful use of azure. Your lyrical jabber books a job somewhere else in reality television, and, you hang back and celebrate the loaded silence. You embrace the fact that you don’t feel the need to prove much of anything anymore — and there, in that void of abandoned expectation, is where your writing begins to evolve into something Great. It outshines your initial agenda for universal adoration, outshines you as an individual entirely, and whatever you thought you needed to be. It outshines your fear of being outsmarted. Your writing teaches without telling, without even whispering. You say it all without having to say much of anything and you feel Jeopardy-smart in doing so, and, though nobody ever tells you this, it is all far more electrifying than a purebred beagle.