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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

Blog # 68 In Praise of Silence, Loneliness, and Boredom by Patricia Ann McNair

*If you’re looking for a fine conference in creative nonfiction, join the community of nonfiction writers in Ashland, Ohio June 1-3, 2018, for a weekend of manuscript consultations, seminars, and readings, all focused on the craft of creative nonfiction. The conference will emphasize essay, memoir, literary journalism, and building the kind of relationships that sustain writers throughout the writing process, from early draft all the way through to book promotion.

Featured Guest Speakers: Andre Dubus 111 and Angela Morales
Presenters: Steve Harvey, Jill Christman, Joe Mackall, Dan Lehman, Kate Hopper, Robert Root, Sonya Huber, Michael Downs, Ana Matia Spagna, Richard Hoffman, Tom Larson, and Michael Steinberg

For more information contact riverteeth@ashland.edu
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This month’s guest is Patty McNair, a first-rate fiction writer/essayist who teaches at Columbia College in Chicago.

Her essay is entitled “In Praise of Silence, Loneliness, and Boredom.”

Most of us know that some of our richest writing emerges when we can retreat from our daily activities and responsibilities and find some quiet time and a quiet place to write.

Patty claims that she found both while she was a writer-in-residence at a small arts academy in northern Michigan, After having lived in Chicago for most of her adult life, Patty writes, “in this space that smelled like summer camp, smelled of forests and bug spray, I got over my fear of silence, of disconnecting.”

In the body of her essay, Patty writes in vivid specifics about how during the three months of her residency, she found “a velvet quiet,” born both of an “inward silence” and “internal listening,” and a feeling of “deep distraction"…by which she means a quiet place where she can listen to “my thoughts, my memories, my questions, my stories…”

For anyone who’s ever yearned for what Virginia Woolf calls “A Room of One’s Own, “Patty McNair’s “In Praise of Silence, Loneliness, and Boredom.” is an essay you’ll have no trouble relating to.


In Praise of Silence, Loneliness, and Boredom
By Patricia Ann McNair

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

-Pablo Neruda, “Keeping Quiet”

They gave me a tiny cabin in the woods. Living room, bedroom, kitchen and bath. No TV. Spotty internet over a dial-up connection, long distance. I am a Chicago girl who was invited to be Writer-in-Residence at Interlochen Arts Academy, a remarkable high school with boarding and day students from all over the world, students with jaw-dropping talents. Music, theatre, art, filmmaking, dance. Writing. Autumn into winter, short, dark days in Northern Michigan. Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. Silence, really.

I was a little terrified.

My regular Chicago life is two trips a day on the CTA, chatter and noise all around me, sirens and engines and other people’s television sets on too loud in the building next to me—our windows less than a foot from one another—an apartment that is never dark because the streetlights from outside stream in through the blinds and the curtains. Cars drive up and down the street in front of my building all day and night, a huge dog in the apartment above me barks when his people aren’t home, and barks even more when his people are. Our place is underneath the flight pattern for jets coming into O’Hare from over the lake.

I didn’t know silence. I didn’t even know quiet very well. But soon enough, in my cozy rooms with wood-paneled walls and orange shag carpet that held the sand tracked in from beneath the trees, in this space that smelled like summer camp, smelled of forests and bug spray, I got over my fear of silence, of disconnecting. After just a few days, I felt myself yearning toward the velvet quiet.

Then, a week after I arrived and on the first day of classes at Interlochen, September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center was attacked.

Talk about noise.

When I walked through the lanes on campus and under the trees behind the cabins and dorms, I could see the blue flicker of television in the students’ common lounges; I could hear phones ringing from inside the buildings; I could see through their windows, people huddled together talking furiously and sadly. I could hear, I swear, that strange mechanical sound of internet connections made over phone lines, the small bong and screech of them.

Back in my own cabin, though, without a television, with limited internet access, I could hear nothing. I could turn it all off. I did have a radio, and I will be forever grateful to Interlochen Public Radio for its news, for its level-headed reporting. It kept me updated on what I needed to know, when I felt I needed to know it. But when I turned off the radio, like I did for most hours of every day, the silence that filled my cabin allowed me to pay close attention to the story unfolding, to the humanness of it, to the emotional pull of our country’s narrative as it developed over those weeks, those months. In the quiet I could, in fact, listen deep.

I seldom went out then except to teach, to grab a few provisions, to run by myself near the lakes and the wetlands. I never have been more lonely than I was during that time. More immersed in silence, more deeply distracted by my own thoughts, more prone to wallowing in my own self-imposed disconnection and boredom.

I also never have written more than I did during those five months.

I was drawn to “an inward silence,” as Terry Tempest Williams calls it: “a howling silence that brings us to our knees and our desk each day.” Quiet and stillness lead me to the page, like Terry Tempest Williams also said, “Silence is where we locate our voice.”

We know this about silence, I think, and yet, we continue to allow ourselves to be taken out of the silence we crave, the silence we need. The silence our work needs. We compose on a computer because we tell ourselves we type faster than we can hand write—as though this were a good thing, writing faster. And the clack of the keys disturbs the silence in a way no whispering scratch of a pen on paper can. We keep the internet in the palm of our hand now so we can look things up whenever we need to, or at least tell ourselves that (I need to, I need to) as we let go of a sentence in progress because our phones have buzzed, or we really, really must see right this instant if we got a response to that email or how many people liked the photo of our cat we posted on Facebook this morning.

Even now, as I write this, I find myself shallowly distracted, caught up in the daily noise of my regular city life. I want to check my email, to make a list of the things I should do today. I stop to listen to the bus on the street outside, its recording that calls out the route number and the intersection; was that my phone that just dinged? I want to see what the orange man in the white house tweeted this morning, I want to watch the news. I fight the pull of technology and 24-hour information, the lure of laundry and dishes, of student papers and of that lovely hunk of Australian cheddar cheese in the fridge. I am easily, shallowly distracted.

Still, despite my bad habits, I am a fan of distraction. Not the kind I just spoke of, that behavior that keeps us skimming on the surface of things like humming birds, dipping and flitting, dipping and flitting. The distraction I yearn for, the kind I advocate for is something else. Deep distraction, born of quiet. That is what I want.

What I mean: I used to be a runner. For various reasons that include a new titanium hip, I no longer run. Instead, I use one of those tedious machines at the gym. When I used to run, and now when I use the machine, I never put on headphones or listen to music. I listen, instead, to the meanderings of my mind. I listen until (Terry Tempest Williams again) “in silence the noises outside cease so the dialogue inside can begin.” I listen deep and allow (invite?) myself to be deeply distracted by the memories and questions and stories I carry with me always.

Like this: outside the window of the gym where I sweat, teenagers pass by on their way to school. There is a group of girls and a group of boys, and in between the two groups there is a couple, a boy and a girl, hands in one another’s back pockets. When I was in junior high, I remember seeing that gesture for the first time. At the shopping center where I’d go to the Woolworth’s to play with white, pink-nosed mice in their cages, I saw my next-door neighbor with a boy (she was sixteen) and he slid his hand into the back pocket of her jeans. That seemed so intimate and grown up to me, I yearned for that sort of closeness with a boy. What is it about those ages, 13, 16, that make us so eager to be older? My brothers were all older than me, and getting into various sorts of trouble. Roger ran away with the carnival. Don would cut class some Fridays and have parties at our house while our folks were at work. Allen was unhappy and sometimes filled with such an acute sense of otherness that he first attempted suicide when he was just 18. Was this, our bad behavior (I ditched school a lot in high school, too, I took a lot of drugs, even though I was in the drama club and the National Honor Society) connected to the fact that my father died when I was just 15, Roger 17, Don and Allen brand new adults? Maybe, I don’t know. Perhaps. Let me write about that a bit. Let me see what I can figure out.

That is how it works for me.

I think of this…

That reminds me of this…

That makes me think of that…

And that reminds me of this…

And this, finally, moves my pen towards that.

If I had been on my machine with earbuds filling my head with Morning Edition or MSNBC or Fleetwood Mac or “This American Life,” I would not have been able to hear the progression of these deep, internal distractions.

You try:

Turn off the noise.

Think of something you saw this morning or yesterday or this week or sometime recently. Let yourself see the thing, the moment, the interaction, in your mind. Recreate the image.

What does it remind you of? Think about it for a minute. Tell it to yourself in your head. Speak it through. Now what does that remind you of?

And that makes you think of…what?

Don’t write, not just yet. Look. Listen. Tell.

And when the pull of the words, the images, the moments is too strong to resist, when they lead you to the page, follow them. Write. Write. Write.

Arundhati Roy tells us “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” This gives me comfort right now, in this superbly messed up time in our history. Further, to my mind, that is a good summation of this practice of deep distraction. The other world is on her way, listen. Listen deep.

Here is something else I believe about silence and deep distraction: in this quiet and intense internal listening, I can discover resonance. The moments from my memories, my work, what I’ve read, what I’ve seen—those moments, emotions, and bits of life that come back to me again and again resonate for me. In some cases, these are the things I might try to ignore, to forget, to drown out. The pain of my past, the ache of loss, the odd moments that have left me vulnerable in my sadness or even, sometimes, in my elation. When I am quiet, I can hear the resonance of those things, too.

Marianne Moore reminds us in her poem “Silence” that “the deepest feeling always shows itself in silence.” And while this deep feeling might make me (us) uncomfortable at times, the creative possibilities in what resonates in the silence are essential. Henry David Thoreau said “If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.”

But for me, perhaps for you, too, silence is hard to come by. Even if I do the things that invite it—turn off the radio in the car, drive in the quiet; leave the television dark for an extra hour or two each day; turn off my phone; leave my earbuds in my bag; write with a pen that whispers over the page; listen to my thoughts, my memories, my questions, my stories—even if I do all of this, there is still noise and bustle around me. My next challenge then, is to cultivate my internal listening even as I am interrupted by the external noise. I will be part of his hubbub if I must, but while I am, I will try to use what I hear, I see, I notice, and let my stories and sentences and essays develop in my mind. I will talk to myself (maybe not out loud, but if so, quietly. Maybe just breath and lips moving) and tell myself the lines, the scenes, the stories I hear inside. I will mine these moments of life’s distractions for possibilities at the writer’s desk.

Some writers say you need to live an active and engaged life in order to have something to write about. And for some, that might be true. But what if an active and engaged life keeps me from moments of exquisite solitude, from the rich and nourishing states of loneliness?

Henry Miller was a proponent of loneliness: “An artist is always alone,” he said, “…what an artist needs is loneliness.” And Henry Rollins said this: “Loneliness adds beauty to life. It puts a special burn on sunsets and makes night air smell better.” I believe this.

Here’s something more I know about loneliness. Since my time at Interlochen, I have returned to my noisy apartment in the city. I have an attentive husband and an affectionate cat. I have dozens of friends and students and colleagues, so I don’t ever need to feel lonely. But some of my loneliest moments are the most fruitful to me as a writer. When I am lonely—and I can be lonely in a crowd, feel apart, feel other (don’t most writers feel some sense of otherness?)—when I feel lonely, I look and listen inward. I listen deep to claim my own ground, to establish my own presence. This, I believe, is where my best writing comes from. Loneliness makes for good writing.

And then there’s loneliness’s fraternal twin, boredom. Boredom is often a form of resistance, I know; it can stand in the way of pushing through to the good work.

Sometimes I work on a piece through a couple of drafts, make it good and then better, and then, when the real work is on me, the push through to making it as best I can, I am apt to say, “I’m tired of this.” I am apt to sit back in my chair, turn on my phone. I am apt to flip through headlines and posts, to say, “I’m bored.” It would be so easy to set the piece aside now, letting it be forever better, but never best. But in order to get to my best, I must push through the boredom until the work becomes something new, something fresh. Don’t most things take some struggle to get to the next level? I understand, too, when I feel the boredom pulling me away from the desk, that it is just a defense mechanism, a way of keeping me from the work that is not only hard, but potentially complex and painful, risky perhaps, yet interesting and ultimately satisfying. Boredom pretends that it is saying, “quit, give up, change course.” Really, though, it is whispering, “don’t quit, make it better, listen closely, try this, follow the tangents, explore the distractions, make a leap, take the risk.”

Now I will count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

-Pablo Neruda, “Keeping Quiet”

In my light and noise-filled apartment in the city, just like on those dark, post-9/11 mornings in my cabin in the woods, I yearn toward the velvet quiet. It’s there, no matter how loud the world may seem. I can hear it breathing. No matter my loneliness, my boredom, the levels of my distraction, I can hear, too, when I listen deep, this: “Write, damn it. Write.”

Booklist calls Patricia Ann McNair "an irresistible personal essayist of refreshing candor, vibrant openheartedness, rueful humor, and unassuming wisdom." Author of And These Are the Good Times (essays), and The Temple of Air (stories), McNair received the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award, Southern Illinois University's Devil's Kitchen Reading Award, and the Society of Midland Authors Finalist Award. She teaches in the English and Creative Writing Department Graduate and Undergraduate Programs at Columbia College Chicago. Patriciaannmcnair>

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