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.