Last weekend, I went on silent retreat, as I have for the past eight Decembers, at the Bishop’s Ranch in Healdsburg, California. I mark the season of Advent—the four weeks leading up to Christmas—by fleeing shops and noise and email, by going inward, for a few days or an entire week. Silence, of course, can have the effect of turning up the volume in our minds, of escalating the chatter of anxiety or doubts or second guessing—which explains, in part, why so few of us choose it on a daily basis. If we get quiet, what might happen? When I tell people about going on a silent retreat, the inevitable question comes up: “So what do you do?”
One summer many years ago, I took a book-design class as part of a six-week publishing course. We learned about fonts and leading, kerning and serifs. It was the first time anyone pointed out to me the concept of negative space—of the space between the lines, the silence between the musical notes, the power of what isn’t written.
I knew the lesson intuitively, I suppose, as we all do. I’d made enough batches of chocolate-chip cookies and typed out enough melodramatic poetry on my mom’s Royal typewriter to understand that what we leave out matters as much as what we put in. But I’d never heard anyone articulate how silence and space, as much as line and form, can be a conscious consideration in the creative process.
When I discovered prayer as an adult, I stumbled into the power of silence. Of getting beyond words. I found what mystics had long ago described as the via negativa, the approach to the divine often termed “apophatic,” from the Greek for “to deny.” God cannot be defined in language, cannot be known by or reduced to a statement or image of who, or what, God is. God, however, can be experienced through the path of unknowing.
Writing, of course, depends upon language, although we like to think of our statements and images not as reductive but as illustrative of some truth. Language, as any postmodernist knows, can go only so far. But it’s all we’ve got. By recognizing its limitations, we can use it more discerningly. I’ve spent hours re-arranging sentences, sentences that I later cut. I’ve fallen in thrall to imagery, imagery that sounded so good but in the end said little. These hours have been among my most focused and satisfying; I never could have finished two published books without them. And yet, by deleting or eliding, I’ve often found a richer resonance.
In her book When God Is Silent—based on lectures given at Yale Divinity School in 1997—Barbara Brown Taylor writes about the power of silence in a world where “vine-ripe tomatoes” taste like sawdust, where words have lost authority and authenticity. “Silence,” she writes, “has become God’s final defense against our idolatry. By limiting our speech, God gets some relief from our descriptive assaults.”
Our descriptive assaults—I love that. Not just assaults on the consumer of fresh produce but on the notion that we can say what God thinks or wants. Assaults on readers, on the page, on truth itself. “When we run out of words,” Taylor writes, “then and perhaps only then can God be God.”
Whether or not you believe in God, that statement—“when we run out of words”—presents a stark yet liberating opportunity. It’s an odd thing, for a writer to speak favorably about running out of words. But, this year, one of the fruits of silence has been to see how, in my own writing, words can serve as defense and distraction, mediator and manipulator. Get them down, sure, but don’t let them fill up all the space.