Carl Phillips on the Value of Silence for Writers
“Sometimes the problem is that we’re trying too hard.”
The following is an excerpt from My Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations from a Life in Writing by Carl Phillips and appeared in Lit Hub’s The Craft of Writing newsletter—sign up here.
I woke early—looked up, then out, out into the un-silence that I call silence, what maybe doesn’t exist. Here, in a stand of woods by the sea, where for company there’s just the small squadron of wild turkeys negotiating the backyard’s sloped geometry of pines and oak trees, it’s easy enough not only to confuse isolation with silence, but to rise and strut from the house naked, unconfused, and say aloud to no one, “Why not, who’s to stop me, if I call it silence?” In this way, silence is a lot like writing, I think: relative, and private, powerful in its intimacy, which has its own power to be deployed or withheld, depending—maybe equally?—on the writer and on what those encountering what I’ve written might be willing to bring to it, whom I’ll never know.
Silence—as in the absence of sound—is an invention of those who can hear, says Ilya Kaminsky: “The deaf don’t believe in silence.” How do we understand sound, except in relationship to its absence? We know sound by what is not sound, and vice versa. But how can a thing be absent—to ourselves, anyway—if we’ve never known it? Which is to say, I agree with Ilya, and what I mean more and more by silence is the relative absence of distraction, or of the usual distractions. I’m writing here in the absence of city distractions that include people, traffic, and the low-grade, habitual alertness to potential danger that seems to come with urban living. But from my window, I can see wildlife, how the trees are a map of the wind’s motion, what’s left of a winter storm heading out to sea. These too are distractions, but not the usual ones, so that being here feels like escape, when it’s just a difference.
So, silence not as an absence of sound, and not necessarily as an absence of distraction. Maybe any space, psychologically, that allows our attention to a thing to manifest itself as art. For me, that has required a relative absence of any human-related sound, but I also understand how for others it can mean writing in a noisy coffee shop filled with people, as if the noise were catalyst for a private interiority within which to pay attention to what no one else in the room can know unless we choose to make it known.
I think that’s all art is, a record of interior attention paid. Is this what Horace meant, about poetry being like a picture? I think so. The pictures are various—a picture of what no one else can understand, or more often a picture of what others do in fact understand but can never understand quite as we do, through the personal lens of our own individual experiences of the world, which is to say art presents the world both all over again and—even if only slightly, sometimes—anew, made strange.
How—oblivious to my watching it from my window—the red-tailed hawk tore open some sort of rodent, a vole, maybe, and ate it alive.
How in ancient Greek the word for “to see” is the word for “to know.”
How I’ve mistakenly, romantically, thought I’ll miss this world when I’m dead.
The dead don’t miss the world. They can’t. The dead don’t miss us.
X as signature, proof I was here. I assume the ancient custom still holds, a way for those who can’t read or write to sign a document. When I was much younger, a core part of elementary education was learning to write in cursive according to the Palmer method. The cursive alphabet ran across a banner above the chalkboard, and each day included having to copy the letters, in upper and lower case, on specially ruled paper. Only now do I understand this as a way of imposing uniformity—if not on expression itself, then on the medium for it. And yet, when I think back to my days as a high school teacher, what I most remember is the distinctiveness—for better and worse, in terms of legibility—of my students’ handwriting. The same is true of my peers. Proof, maybe, of individuality’s stubborn insistence upon itself? Why can’t that also be what’s meant by style or voice or sensibility when it comes to poems, for example? The poem as signature, as personal record or confirmation—of the poem’s immediate subject, yes, but also of the poet’s having existed: this small manifestation of a moment of private attention to a thing as proof. In this way, to make art is also, like handwriting, a form of insistence. A form, too, of resistance. To write is to resist invisibility. By having spoken, I’ve resisted silence before again returning to it.
I’ve long been fascinated with the role of the first poem in a poet’s first book. It’s a bit like the literary equivalent of attending one’s first debutante ball (or at least as I can imagine such things, never having attended one)—a similar deliberateness and purposefulness. It’s how we announce ourselves to potential strangers for the very first time. “X” is my first book’s opening poem, which ends with this sentence: “X is all I keep meaning / to cross out.” The signature of X as confirmation and assertion. The implied unease with or regret about that assertion, hence the intention—routinely untended to—of crossing everything out. What it means to keep meaning to, and not doing it. The will to continue, to survive, in spite of. In spite of what?
A silence opens, says Amy Clampitt. The title of her final book of poems. I’ve always taken the title to mean that a silence, having occurred, then expands into something larger, a more encompassing form of itself. But of course, to open can also be transitive, can have agency, so that by silence opening can be meant that a silence opens something else, left unspecified by Clampitt. Why haven’t I thought of that, until now?
Then there is the silence that others call writer’s block, when whatever inside us that allows us to make art falls silent, or a silence settles in around it, preventing our usual access to power, the muse, creativity, imagination. I’ve never been comfortable with the term “writer’s block,” with its suggestion of obstacles and combativeness. As with teaching (which in academia too often seems to get confused with correction and oneupsmanship), I prefer to see writing as an invitation. The absence of an invitation doesn’t have to mean we’ve been shunned; instead, maybe there aren’t any events on the immediate horizon; or some part of us (the writing part?) realizes we’re not ready for these events. In which case, aren’t there plenty of other things to do, or that need doing? So maybe the first response to this particular version of silence is to revise how we think of it—less as an obstacle, and more as a shift of attention and energy; right now, actual writing doesn’t require us, but—for example—the kitchen floor could use some attention, the dog wouldn’t mind a longer walk than usual, when did I last make pizza dough from scratch? This brings me to my second point: the potential value of distraction. Sometimes the problem is that we’re trying too hard, too self-consciously, to write, we’re too focused on a goal we’ve set for ourselves, when—contrary to what capitalism would have us believe—art isn’t a goal to be checked from a list of goals, any more than art’s value can ever be objectively codified like a kind of math; for me, at least, art is the result of my having allowed myself to stray from any marked path and to become lost. The poem is the evidence—like tracks, or footprints—of my quest into and across strange territory, the shape I’ve left almost as if unintentionally behind me.
Distractions can be useful, then, for pulling us away from self-consciousness about making, and for increasing instead the chances for the seeming accident that, even now, after so many years, each new poem feels like. To this day, my best lines or parts of lines almost always come to me unbidden while I’m walking my dog or doing some of the so-called mindless work of cooking, peeling carrots, mincing the garlic. When this happens, I write the idea down immediately for later. This means that later, when I actually have time to sit down and try writing, I’ll be spared the intimidation of the blank page; I’ll have something to at least start with, and if those aren’t the right lines, they may well be the spark for them.
Finally, it’s worth rethinking what we mean by writing—or any act of art making. Is it only writing when we have a pen in hand, or a nearby keyboard? I think writing includes much more than that: patience, attention, openness to the world past screen or page—to what’s findable there. These are, if not the act of writing itself, among the conditions, at least, that writing requires.
As long as I am living in language, as I like to put it, I count it as writing. This is why reading, for example, is so important—is maybe the most important part of writing. If I’m reading, I’m also at some level taking in language’s capacities and variations for the expression of human experience. Reading Woolf ’s sentences won’t make me write like Woolf—I can’t do that, and I don’t want to—but it allows me to engage with sentence strategies that aren’t mine and to add those strategies to the many I’ve acquired all my life by reading. Again, figuring out and imitating a writing strategy from another writer doesn’t mean you’ll write like that author. Individual sensibility is what makes Woolf who she is. When we adopt another’s strategy, we still end up deploying it via our own unique sensibility, which means the sentence we make as a result will remain our own.
Living in language isn’t limited to “literary” reading, by the way. For me, it all counts: humming to and trying to catch a song’s lyrics; double checking a recipe’s detailed instructions before proceeding; scrolling Twitter and getting caught up in a thread on how people used to carve images onto reindeer antlers in the Paleolithic age. Living in language includes what’s casually overheard. I remember my first visit to the Soulard Farmers Market, what’s billed as the oldest openair market not just in Saint Louis but in the United States. “Sweeter than mother’s love!” one vendor kept shouting, hawking what turned out to be a pile of watermelons, honeydew, and two I couldn’t quite identify, but I bought them, sure, and yes, when split open, weren’t they sweet, weren’t the colors too, inside . . .
Meanwhile, given that everything we write comes to us via the many lenses of the experiences we’ve accumulated across a life—we speak of trees, for example, according to what we know of trees by actual experience and through what we’ve experienced of trees in books, movies, nursery rhymes, and more—then everything we do is at some level research for the next poem. The key, I think, to this kind of research is again to keep it from being too self-conscious. To go to the beach, for example, and feel a need to take mental notes the entire time for the next poem is not what I mean. I mean simply going to the beach, maybe swimming, maybe not, listening to the gulls, falling asleep to the sound of waves, noticing how the fog at sunset makes the sunset less and more the point at the same time . . . In my own experience, this rarely translates into a poem “about” going to the beach. But what I felt there, something my brain stored that I don’t remember at the time seeing, smelling, or having heard—these are the things that end up appearing in a poem, often years later, and often I myself can’t trace my own idea back to its catalyst. I’ll admit, it is hard to explain this to university deans who ask me to quantify and itemize the research I’ve “conducted” while on sabbatical—equally difficult, explaining to a partner who’s been watching me apparently just stare out a window for ten minutes that this is part of the business of making. Difficulty explaining a fact, though, doesn’t change the fact.
I wrote a poem, once, where two people are riding on horseback through a vaguely surreal landscape punctuated by the occasional flying, beheaded creature. Eventually, for variety’s sake, the two riders dismount and walk for a while, and the poem ends this way: “We mapped our way north by the stars, old school, until there / were no stars, just the weather of childhood, where it’s snowing forever.” That ending came to me out of nowhere, and quickly, and seemed absolutely the only ending. What is the weather of childhood? Is it psychological? Is the snow? Maybe months later, while reading the poem before an audience, I remembered the dream I used to have fairly routinely when I was a boy: I’ve flown with my mother to the North Pole, and we’ve gotten separated. I set out to find her, but there’s nothing but snow everywhere, in drifts towering over me, whenever I call for her the snow that keeps falling absorbs the sound, I can barely see anymore—I begin to panic . . .
I once asked Ellen Bryant Voigt, a poet for whom there are typically many years between books of poems, how she handled the silence, what I still thought of at the time as writer’s block. “That’s not how I think of it,” she responded, and went on to explain to me how a snake, in order to attack, must first recoil to establish a position from which to attack. As I understand the analogy, the attack is the act of writing, and the period of recoil, of retraction, is many things: reflection, thinking, revision of thought, remembering. “You’re not blocked,” Ellen told me. “You’re waiting. You’re paying attention.” Which is also research. Also, a version of silence, the only sound the sound of a snake breathing, which must be, as sounds go, a soft, a small one.
In her poem “[evening and my dead once husband],” Lucille Clifton encounters her dead husband, and presumably believing that old adage about the dead acquiring a wisdom beyond that of the living, she asks him to explain her own anxiety, the fact of illness, the “terrible loneliness / and wars against our people.” And instead of answering aloud, he spells out with his fingers “it does not help to know.” Indeed. Exactly. Is it maybe better not just to respect but to committedly embrace knowing’s limits? Past which, like the sea where the land gives out, yes: a silence opens.
Excerpted fromMy Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations from a Life in Writing, by Carl Phillips, to be published in November 2022 by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2022 by Carl Phillips. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.