Meditations on Silence and Speaking Up
Momentarily, I’ve been silenced. Three weeks ago, I had surgery on my tongue, and speech is returning with maddening leisure. This afternoon, I had to ask my friend to order me a cup of spiced cider at the Bijou—all those “s” sounds would have killed me. The same friend and I couldn’t talk about the movie we’d just seen (Liberal Arts—loved it) because any sentence longer than “Please bring chocolate” exhausts my poor, healing tongue. Last night, my husband and I read Dexter Filkins’ gripping investigative piece in The New Yorker, “Atonement,” and we couldn’t have a conversation about it. I am mute, seething, sorrowful in spite of the promise of full recovery.
I’ve been thinking a lot about silence.
There are so many ways in which writers, or prospective writers, curtail their voice. This one takes a job in public relations for authors, terrified to write his own stories. That one graduates with an M.F.A. in creative writing, but, daunted by a year’s worth of rejection slips (those damnable words, “We’re going to take a pass on this,” feel exactly like what Asimov described as “lacerations of the soul”), she takes a full-time government job and falls onto the couch after nine-hour days, too beaten down to pen the poetry she loves. We tell ourselves we don’t have time to write—any surplus hours belong to our children, our partner, the dog.
We stifle inspiration, tongue-tied and pissed off.
Nothing about this is good. Being unable to talk for three weeks has gifted me with plenty of time to think. I’ve been thinking about colleagues who get time to write maybe a couple of essays a year. I’ve been wondering about past students who, instead of crafting the journalistic features they adored during our time together, have vanished into the world of jobs as necessity (and here, I point out that the only reason I have any time to write is thanks to my husband and his full-time job with benefits). I understand the many reasons one might fall silent. Believe me, I do.
Still, a writer—published or unpublished—can accomplish a lot in the hazy half hour before sleep, or the first twenty minutes upon awakening, provided the five-year old kid and three cats don’t climb into bed with her. My own energy during this period of recovery has gone into editing my students’ work and maintaining online discussion boards—I’ve got just a few minutes a day left over for anything creative. But maybe this time constraint is a gift, too. Yesterday, I scribbled a short essay, fast, before aching nerves whacked me upside the head and I had to lie down. And last night, I did something I hadn’t done in 20 years—something I blush to admit to my accomplished readers: I wrote a poem. (Must’ve been the pain meds.)
Does it matter if either piece gets published? I can honestly say no. What matters is that I made time to write; I refused to be silenced—at least in my notebook. For those few moments, anger and frustration and sadness gave way to fulfillment.
What would you say if you could voice anything? Would you ask for a cup of spiced cider . . . or for something more vital?