Finding My Voice in Silence

 When I began my first book of personal essays about the desert where I then lived, I struggled to find my writing voice. I had always written as an expert, telling stories of science. That was easy for me: I was trained as a scientist and grew up in a family that valued observation, data collection, analysis, and detachment. Articulating my personal voice–the voice of my heart and spirit–was much more difficult. How did I do it? By cultivating quiet, stilling my mind, and treating my writing as a spiritual practice. Here's an excerpt from my memoir, Walking Nature Home, just released by University of Texas Press that tells the story:

HomecoverI threw myself into my writing, beginning a book on the desert where we lived. I read archeology, anthropology, and history. I waded through hydrology and water law. I burrowed into geology, botany, and zoology. I searched out journals of early explorers, poured over Spanish land grants, went to the county courthouse to examine old deeds. I found stories galore, but no matter what I wrote, the sentences came out stiff, the tales lifeless. I couldn't seem to find my writing voice. …

A background in science made it easy to speak as an expert, but the results didn't satisfy me. When I turned in the first few chapters of my desert book, my editor returned them with one word in all caps scrawled atop the beginning of the manuscript: "Personalize!" What was I supposed to say?

Quakers find their voices in silence. Friends' silent worship stems from the belief that the voice of the divine, the urgings of the spirit, can only be heard from attentive stillness. Out of the quiet comes sacred speech as individual Friends stand up and give voice to their insights. … In Quaker practice, silence speaks.

I began to treat my work as worship, striving consciously to cultivate the inner and outer quiet necessary to hear the voice of my spirit. Once Richard left for campus and Molly biked off to school, I sat down at my computer, a mug of herb tea close at hand. For the first half hour or so, I cleared my mind by spilling its clutter of  thoughts, emotions, images, and memories into an unedited, uncensored journal file, simply writing them out of my way. Then I settled in to work in the stillness I had created, ignoring the ringing of the telephone, the summons of the doorbell, the noise of cars passing on the street outside. Whenever I found myself giving in to the oh-so-urgent call of household or garden tasks, I recollected what I was about, hauled myself back to my office, wrapped the stillness around me, and resumed writing. 

In essence, what I was doing was honoring my writing by giving myself the conditions I needed to nurture my creativity. Silence, both metaphorical and literal, helped me listen to the voice of my heart and spirit, key components of my writing voice.

What do you need to nurture your writing voice? How do you find silence–or whatever nurtures your creativity–in your life? 

I'll be back on Telling HerStories on April 10th as part of my blog book tour for Walking Nature Home to talk about my journey with this story, including how long it took me to write. I'll also talk about what I've learned about reconciling my private and public lives since the memoir has been released. For more on my blog book tour, visit my web site.

In the meantime, join the discussion: How do you make writing your practice?

7 responses to “Finding My Voice in Silence

  1. Susan,
    Yes. Finding one’s voice in silence. “Witnessing” as the Quakers do. How right. How good.
    In many ways I found my own voice in silence during evenings in Botswana and Ghana when there was nothing to do but read…and write. I fell in love with my journal as many women had before me.
    But, as we know, silence is not really silence. Silence is not a vacuum of stillness.
    Silence is active and filled with variety, inside and outside.
    Your book “Walking Nature Home” illustrates the fruits of knowing and befriending your silence so intimately as you have.
    Good fortune on your blogtour. Come back and tell us all about it! How perfectly cool to move from silence and take it on the road.
    Janet Riehl

  2. Janet, What a beautiful post! I can see you sitting there in your beach cottage on the Ghana Coast, listening to the night come in and the waves shush on the shore, and pouring your thoughts into your journal. It’s a fabulously appealing picture, and it fills my heart to think you could go back to Africa and find your stories again from that silence that is so fruitful for you.
    I’m on the road today for a Nature Conservancy project, and looking ahead to my first “real” book promotion event on Saturday. Then the blog tour starts on Monday–yikes! I’d better be ready….

  3. Susan,
    I just read an article about a woman who “found herself” only after gifting herself with two days of silence every month. That sounds like heaven to me. It seems there is so much talk these days about finding oneself or connecting with one’s inner being that some might well ask if we’re not overplaying its importance. My answer is that we’re asking and seeking precisely because we do need that inward journey of discovery. Many of us live, I live, in a pretty superficial world where all the attention in on doing and achieving and living up to a schedule. There’s little emphasis on self. In the normal workaday world, self is merged into the whole of the workplace team. Too much individuality upsets the flow of things. It’s difficult to wind down from this constant subrogation of self and keep a good sense of who the inner being is. Now that’s me, and perhaps it isn’t that difficult for others to change gears. I desperately need time alone and don’t get nearly enough of it. At times, when I’m home, I seem to be still partly away from myself, and then too is the family me with duties and pleasures of the family as a whole–still not the inner essential me. I know I am a sum of all the parts of my life, but I never seem to be able to gather all of me together in a single silent spot. Does that make sense? I feel unsettled.
    Blessings and good fortune on your book tour.
    Susan I.

  4. It makes complete sense, Susan, and I think you have really captured the confusion we feel when we don’t have enough quiet time to gather our fractured selves into one coherent whole. I think women have it harder because we’re trained to serve from childhood: it’s our job to hold the family together, to stay connected with our friends, to help our community, to make peace in the world, for that matter! We are tugged in so many different directions, and told (whether in words or just in what we absorb from our families and cultures) that others come first and we come last. That makes it very hard to make time for our own selves. I am fortunate in having a room of my own to go for my work that lets me find that single quiet spot. In it I have a sandstone shelf running the length of one wall on which I’ve set up a kind of “altar” with special things to remind me of who I am and who I want to be. Maybe you can find ourself a quiet corner somewhere to put a comfy chair and make yourself a place that encourages you to take time every day to find the quiet you need. Even just fifteen minutes! That’s one of the things I had to learn to do to keep myself healthy–in the final chapter of Walking Nature Home, I go through my day, recounting all of the ways I’ve learned to support my being me in large and small ways. It was instructive to write, and I’ve gotten the most wonderfully touching emails from women who have said it was inspiring to read!

  5. Congratulations, Susan, on the release of your book. I’m looking forward to reading it!
    I so relate to your efforts to create a practice of stillness from which your own writing voice can emerge. This has been a great challenge for me, one I struggle with daily–how to make both my zen practice and my writing practice into rituals to which I willingly turn rather than seeming chores that the egoic mind resists by all means possible. I haven’t found my answer yet, though I take comfort in the teachings of other wiser beings. Flint Sparks, the priest at the Zen sangha I attend would say, just notice the resistance. Be present in the resistance to practice. See yourself not as a failed practitioner but as a Buddha who resists practice.

  6. Jane, thanks for your comments. Your thoughts about your zen practice and the resistance you feel in making it and your writing practice into rituals you embrace rather than chores you avoid is so familiar. I think we all struggle with that kind of resistance, and as your teacher at the Zen sangha points out, that resistance is just part of the practice. We are who we are. If we don’t start by acknowledging that, there’s no way to start! I find that it helps me to give myself some limbering up time, both in my daily yoga practice and my writing. So I start my yoga with simple stretches, not expecting much, and once I get going, it’s easy to move into the more centered, disciplined yoga asanas and prayer time. Ditto with my writing: I give myself half an hour to journal without any agenda or editing, and after I’ve done that, it’s easier to slip into the discipline of writing whatever’s uppermost in my list of deadlines.

  7. Silence found it’s home in the middle of my heart, my heart which was cold and fearful for a long, long time. Inside the silence, held by the heart, were things that happened to my other children, my inside children, not “I.” Bad things were sprinkled in the life of the girl called “Me,” memories lost in the silence, but safe in my heart. One day I, not “Me,” started to see what was inside, like getting a glimpse in the yolk of an egg, guarded and protected by a shell, cracking, giving birth to a bad thing, then another, and another. I saw the sprinkles falling all over me and forming words never heard, words of “Me,: and my inside children. We cried in fear and began to speak, breaking the silence that was once a friend. . My heart became lighter as I learned the truth, through words, of the memories, held by the shiny sprinkles. I told their story, giving birth to the whole person. Now I was filled with sympathy and love for me and my friends. Silence broken, I was healed.

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