Noise

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.

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The Spiral

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).

“Slowly I Turned”: Family

I’ve said before that people exhaust me, but I ought to qualify that statement. There are a few people who don’t. I have a great family, not so much in terms of membership numbers but rather in terms of quality. That is to say, few as they are, I wouldn’t trade them for anything. That’s a good thing, really, and yet… yes, they also qualify as a hindrance to my writing life. A welcome hindrance, but a hindrance all the same. For example: I had an opportunity this summer to spend two full months away from my day job. I fully expected that I would spend much of that time catching up on my writing. Instead, in the whole two-month span, I wrote perhaps a chapter. I’m not even sure I wrote that much. That’s because I spent those months staying with my family.

You see, I’m not one of those fortunate people who can write anywhere, under any circumstances. For one thing, I cannot focus my imagination when the TV is on. I just can’t. When I’m at my family home, the TV is almost always on. If I want to do any work, I have to put on headphones and play music loudly so that I can’t hear anything around me. I have to recline with my feet up so that my laptop screen blocks the television screen. Then, as soon as I get all arranged for writing, I hear a voice raised, calling my name. Sure enough, somebody has been trying to talk to me despite the headphones. Since it’s rude to ignore people when they talk to you, I always have to stop, remove my headphones, and engage in conversation. Goodbye, train of thought.

For another thing, I love to cook. I don’t get much opportunity, living on my own in a tiny economy apartment, to prepare lots of dishes on a regular basis. So, when I’m with my family, I end up in the kitchen most of the time. I have a grand time cooking up the kind of meals that I just can’t manage in a compact kitchenette—but again, at the expense of my writing time. I want to write, but I also want to take care of my family in whatever limited capacity I can manage. It’s a very mild form of being pulled in two, I grant you, but there it is.

I have come to the conclusion that there’s no escape from this tension. Who would want to become the kind of person who neglects her family in favor of a job, no matter how compelling—become a workaholic, in other words? As long as I have my mind, I will have my stories. As I see it, who knows how long I’ll have with the people I love? More than that, they are my best—sometimes my only—encouragement when it seems as though I’m wasting my time trying to force upon the world something it doesn’t want. Many a time I’ve been so discouraged by rejection in its multitude of forms that I’ve been tempted to give up trying altogether. I mean, I’d never stop writing. I’d have to stop being myself first. But I could easily give up sharing what I write. At times it feels like nobody would even notice if I did stop. That’s when my family steps in, prodding me out of my grim pessimism, because they believe in me.

So, in the end, I see that I’ve made another statement that needs qualification. My family is both hindrance and help, and I do believe that the one is as essential as the other. After all, a good writer ought to balance factors like work and relaxation, imagination and reality, solitude and society. I tip too far toward work, imagination, and solitude; my family tips me back the other direction. For that, I thank them. (And to show them my gratitude, I really should make for them the recipe for skillet lasagna that I found recently. Maybe with parmesan crisps and fresh garlic bread, or a nice green salad… ooh, and apple crisp for dessert…. Mmmm…)

“Slowly I Turned” : Health

I’d like it known that I feel lousy today. I’m on the second day of a (usually) three-day migraine. Well, I call it a migraine, but the symptoms are a little idiosyncratic—but that’s beside the point right now. For more than two days now, I’ve been dragging myself around like a half-drowned cat, looking pathetic and accomplishing practically nothing.

 

And wouldn’t you know, it annoys me. It really annoys me. I resent it when ill health gets in the way of my writing. It doesn’t happen continually, but on enough of a regular basis that I’ve tagged “Health” as one of the hindrances I’d like to shake by the lapels until its teeth rattle. When I was younger, I used to wish that I could be a bodiless intelligence. I always thought life would be so much easier that way; no weak flesh to interfere with my eager curiosity, no chemical impediment to the pursuit of wisdom.

 

Yes, I do realize (now) that there wouldn’t be much point to curiosity or to wisdom unless I had some physical presence with which to make use of its fruits. I realize that I wouldn’t be myself any longer, because I have been “sown perishable,” as one hindrance-laden wise man once phrased it. That’s part of my identity. We’re funny creatures, we humans, being neither angel nor animal, but something midway between the two. The physical we cannot shake off while we inhabit this earth; the spiritual we cannot ignore if we hope to surpass our current state. We’re stuck, one might say. And yet…

 

I’m reminded of an incident that happened to me a few years ago. I was still in the process of being diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia, and one episode was severe enough that my then-roommate drove me to the emergency room. While we sat in the waiting area, I voiced the thought that came uppermost to my mind: What bothers me most is that this is taking up my writing time. My roommate looked askance at me, as she so often did, and replied, “Girl, you need to rethink your priorities!” The whole idea of ill health being a hindrance, I realized, was based on the assumption that my life is my own, to order as I please. I gave that up a long, long time ago—but somehow traces of the assumption linger on even today.

 

Because we are this strange hybrid of heaven and earth, we are at our best not when we try to stamp out one or the other half, but when we blend them correctly. Wisdom, for us, is not something attained apart from the physical, but through constant submission of the physical to the spiritual, and care of the latter for the former. A story is nothing without conflict, and we are nothing without endurance through successive struggles.

 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to lie down with a warm compress in a dark, quiet room.

“Slowly I Turned”: Day Jobs and Interruptions

No question about it—my day job provides the biggest hindrance to my writing. The job and I are deeply unsuited for one another. One reason: I can never find any time to myself. I’m an introvert in the extreme. People drain the energy right out of me. I need to withdraw in order to regain equilibrium. However, in a building meant to hold about 2000 people but containing upwards of 2300 at any given moment, there’s nowhere to hide. See the problem?

I’ll admit that it is a bit of a strain. I’ve tried to develop ways to circumvent this. I usually try to do story planning as a coping mechanism when I’m under stress. but every time I take out my notebook on my lunch break, someone absolutely must speak to me that moment. I have contemplated making a sign that says, Literary Therapy In Progress; Do Not Disturb. But since only a rare few actually read signs, I’m sure it wouldn’t do any good. I can withdraw to the farthest corner of the staff lunchroom, build a little barricade of my insulated lunch carrier and the canvas shopping bag in which I brought it, and hunch down so that my nose is mere inches away from where pen meets paper—and wouldn’t you know, somebody will still drag a chair beside me and strike up a conversation, as if I’m just biding my time until I have someone to talk to me. I even push the extra chairs to farther tables when I arrive, but to no avail. There isn’t a moment’s peace, and it wears at me. The stress then eats away at my creativity, so that even when I go home after work, more often than not, my nerves are too raw to do much of anything.

I gave up this week. I brought a book to read, a book that I have read a few times before and have enjoyed. That way, when I am interrupted, I can put it down whenever I must, without worrying about losing my place in the story by the time each visitor has moved along. My reasoning was that, if I can’t exercise my imagination one way, I might as well feed it a little in another way. How well is that working, you may ask? Yesterday I managed to read one short paragraph… in forty-five minutes. (For comparison, I usually manage approximately a hundred pages in an hour when left to myself.) So you might say it isn’t working out very well at all.

Today I even gave that up. I ate my lunch, just waiting for the first person to come swooping down. That first person was an older gentleman, whom I’ll call Henry. I do like Henry. When I call him a gentleman, I mean it in a very literal sense. Henry is one of the gentlest people I know. I have never known him to be cross with another person. He’s an upstanding, giving, hard-working man who has a colorful personal history and a wealth of anecdotes and trivia about nearly everything. He knows just about everybody, it seems, either first- or second-hand. I see him in the hallways often, or passing through my office, or in the lunch room. I asked him how he was. He answered a little atypically, mentioning some troubles with his legs. This reminded me that, some weeks ago, I had heard that Henry had been through a rough patch with his health. I had never learned what the doctors had told him, so today I asked.

A form of progressive dementia—that was Henry’s diagnosis. Of course he’s afraid. I saw it in his face when he talked about it in a low, quiet voice. He’s retiring this year, because he doesn’t know how long he has before it incapacitates his judgment. But Henry is a fighter. He isn’t the type to creep away, cowed, into the shadows. He’s already making plans for his newly-revised future: where he will live when he can no longer care for himself, how he will bequeath his property.

We talked for most of my lunch break. Not just about the diagnosis, no. Henry didn’t want to dwell on it, and I didn’t want to pry deep enough to hurt him. But thanks to him, I have changed my own diagnosis. I was always, still am, and always will be an introvert. That’s a certainty. What Henry changed for me today was simply this: he reminded me that stories come from people. I’ll always feel swamped by the overabundance of superficial connections I must make and break over the course of a day in the office, but I never want to lose sight of people like Henry. I don’t want to mistake slick customer service transactions for real human contact. If I do, I’ll always want to hide from it. If I hide from people, my imagination will slowly grow more and more anemic, and my stories will be empty shells, mere forms with no substance.

“Slowly I Turned” : The Introduction

Long story short: one day when I was visiting my sister’s house, I came into the living room to find her watching I Love Lucy. That specific episode featured a version of the classic burlesque sketch “Slowly I Turned.” At once I thought, “This is perfect!” I had been looking around for a motif strong enough to carry a new blog. Really, this is perfect. I can easily see myself as a broken-down bum who stops every stranger to pour out the story of how some interloper stole away my true love. In a way, that’s what I plan to do here. You, my reader, get to play the role of the kind-faced stranger. I promise: no cream pies, no seltzer bottle. It’s my intention to hunt down everything that hinders me as a writer, seize it by the throat, and shake it until it’s no longer a hindrance. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Well, it does to me. You can judge for yourself.

“Slowly I Turned” Archives Opened!

Approximately once a week, on each day of the month which happens to be a multiple of seven, the previous installment of “Slowly I Turned”: Writer vs ‘Real World’ will be deposited here from athenaeum.wikispaces.com. In time, we may well end up migrating all the content from that site to this. We shall see. At any rate, welcome to hmsnowfantasynovelist.com!