I needed two weeks to work this one out. This topic deserves more than one post, so I expect I’ll revisit it sometime in the near future. The topic is NOISE. Noise hinders me as a writer more consistently than probably any other aspect of life.
Right now, I am alone in the house where I did most of my growing-up. It isn’t precisely silent in here—it never is—but every sound is familiar. I hear a load of laundry running in the next room; a car passes now and again outside the windows behind me. Colder weather makes the house groan a little. Naturally, there’s the rapid-fire click of the keys as I type. Besides these background noises, however, the house is quiet, just as it usually was when I was a kid. I spent a lot of time in the quiet of this house. I know its every creak. I love the quiet of this house, because even when it’s empty but for me, it’s never empty. This is the hush of expectancy, as if the house awaits the return of its inhabitants.
This feeling is the exact opposite of what I experience daily at my job. There’s never any quiet in my office as long as there are people allowed to enter, mainly because, as soon as a hush descends, some ingenuous twit says, “Isn’t it quiet in here!” To which I’m always tempted to respond, “Well, it was until just now when you opened your mouth.” I never say it aloud. I just sit with my mouth clamped shut and marvel at how silence is a lost skill among the post-postmodern crowd.
But noise isn’t just an aural phenomenon. We can talk about loud clothing and clutter all we like, but what we’re reacting against is noise. Sensory overload has become a way of life for too many people. To them, it’s just normal to be always going, doing, talking, acquiring—just noise-making, really, for all the busyness is worth. I can’t live that way.
Here’s what caught my attention in the first place. I work among an overabundance of teenagers. It’s a rough age, because for the most part they haven’t surpassed the childish crudities of outlook they had before they came to high school, yet instead of clamoring for candy or against nap-time, now they clamor for adult rights and treatment. These teenagers in particular belong to the school of thought that says, “The loudest person deserves the most attention.” After a whole morning of this, I went up to the staff lounge for my lunch. Henry was there. You must remember Henry—I’ve mentioned him in a previous post. Henry had been absent from work for a few days. Some of the medications his doctors are trying out on him had undesirable side effects, as I understand matters, which landed him in hospital for those few days. Well, Henry was back. I was glad to see him on his feet again, though it troubled me to see him walking slower than usual. He talked more softly than usual too. I had to strain to hear him, though he only sat six feet from me. On that day, he wanted to walk through part of his past, so I listened to him talk about when his kids were little, back when his family lived in a really close neighborhood. I listened, as I usually do. All the rest of the day, I couldn’t shake free of the heartbreaking thought that, due to all the noise in that place, Henry probably didn’t get heard very often. What he had to say was precious to him, all the more so because he might not be able to keep hold of those memories for much longer. It hurt to think that something as worthless as noise might trample over those delicate intangibles.
How does this pertain to my life as a writer? Writers aren’t just writers these days. We’re sales people, marketers, side-show announcers for our own little circuses. If we don’t make noise, we don’t sell books. The person who makes the most noise allegedly sells more and, consequently, is more successful. We end up as flashy noise in the margins of websites, a flood of junk mail in a bookstore’s mailbox—but the corresponding payoff hardly ever matches up. I don’t want to be part of that world. There are too many quiet voices steamrollered by that world. Not only voices like Henry’s, but quieter, more fundamental voices as well. I’m reminded of the Biblical story of Elijah. He fled the voice of a powerful and vindictive queen, fled all the way to a mountain in the desert. There he prayed to God for death to take him, because he was all alone in a hostile world. God’s response didn’t come in the gale-force wind, nor in the earthquake that followed, nor in the blaze of fire that fell. It wasn’t in the spectacular that the LORD answered Elijah, but in a whisper.
I don’t want to contribute to the noise. If that means I reach only half a dozen people—no, even if it means I reach only one—so be it, as long as I can abide within the silence where even a whisper can reach me.
Often I find flesh-and-blood people, with a precious few exceptions, to be far inferior to fictional ones. It’s as if they try to be one-dimensional. If only literal people put as much effort into character development as a good writer puts into developing a literary character….
I’ve given this post the title “Spiral” because of a phenomenon I’ve noticed in this area. An alternate title might be “The Incredible Shrinking Soul.” You’ve seen it also, if you’ve spent any time observing the people you meet on a regular basis. Possibly you might have seen it in yourself at some point, although it has been my experience that it’s a good deal easier to notice it in others than it is to catch it at work in yourself.
The soul is not static. I find it difficult to describe what I mean, because different people use so many different terms for what I grew up calling ‘the soul.’ This thing—soul, psyche, consciousness, heart, animating principle—is what makes you an individual. It grows with experience, but it can also shrink. Of late, it seems that I’ve been meeting more and more people whose lives follow a downward spiral, compacting the soul, hardening it into an unfeeling knot. You know when you meet someone whose soul is constricted. You can tell at first by that indefinite sense of self-absorption they emit. They’ve turned inward. To offer you a mild example: several days ago, I went to the break room at work for my lunch. When I arrived, the microwave was not in use, so I put my soup in for two minutes. I sat down to wait, and a few seconds later a coworker entered. She walked to the microwave with her meal and opened the door. A moment later, she said, “Oh. Someone’s lunch is in here.” The words themselves, put down in black and white, don’t convey the sense of almost childlike surprise in her voice as she realized that the microwave wasn’t just ready and waiting for her arrival. Now, I know this woman reasonably well—well enough, anyway, to know that she has a very challenging job that demands a lot from her. It’s more than probable that her mind was on some incident from earlier, so she was running more or less on autopilot. She didn’t mean to get in anyone’s way or to put herself forward.
That was a small, innocuous example. The trouble is, the spiral begins as something small and innocuous. It begins in such a way that the person involved can claim a good excuse. Sometimes a heavyweight stressor bears down, or a danger of some sort looms. One has defense mechanisms for just such an occasion; defenses are by nature constricting, to limit the amount of damage inflicted on the psyche. The trouble comes when defenses become habits. I’ve met a good many people who reach a point where they view every inconvenience as a personal affront. They treat others aggressively so as not to surrender the prerogative of taking the offensive. They complain about everything, because they come to view their problems as infinitely greater than anything their neighbor might suffer. These are the people who complain loudest about having to stand in line. These are the people who verbally abuse store clerks and waiters for not giving them exactly what they want, exactly when they want it. Meanwhile, as their focus tunes in increasingly on themselves, their souls shrivel and die by increments.
I’m terrified of becoming one of these people. I believe I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a people-person. To me, the majority of people are abrasive. I end most days feeling as if I’ve spent the hours wrapped in sandpaper. I want to like people. I used to expect that I would like people. Today I heard an old song from my first year of college. Nostalgia isn’t the word for it. I nearly grieved the person I had been, the one who still believed that the world was peopled by intelligent, honorable folk who cared for others. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that any longer. I’ve met too many people out only for what they can get—generally the same people who believe themselves decent, upstanding citizens no worse than the next person. That’s awfully depressing for someone who actually believes in ideals like character, integrity, and charity (in the old-fashioned sense of the word).
And then I realize that, by thinking this way, I am turning into one of those people sliding down the spiral. I’m defending myself. I’m shrinking within myself. Among the many problems one invites by allowing the soul to shrink, the one that really tips me over the edge is this: it really kills my creativity. The smaller I get, the smaller my stories become. Part of the reason I gravitate toward speculative fiction is the grand potential of the genre. At its best, it can involve sweeping adventures and yet still keep the intimacy of a character study. “Write what you know” is an axiom beaten to the point of becoming a cliché, but it applies to the development of your characters as much as to the general subject matter of your work. If I don’t work on my own character, what have I to give to the people I create? I don’t want to get smaller and smaller.
I’ve adopted a strategy for combating the spiral. When I’m irritable or angry, for instance, I try to find ways to make other people smile. Comedy is a wonderful antidote to take when you find yourself taking yourself too seriously. Whatever the means, I’ll do what I can to allow my soul to expand, because “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls”(Hebrews 10:39, ESV).