The Silence


Every now and then, I drop in to Neil Gaiman’s site to see where he’s travelling and what he’s thinking about. A few days ago, Neil quoted from science fiction author Samuel R. Delaney’s letters:

“Writers are people who write. By and large, they are not happy people. They’re not good at relationships. Often they’re drunks. And writing — good writing — does not get easier and easier with practice. It gets harder and harder — so eventually the writer must stall out into silence.The silence that waits for every writer and that, inevitably, if only with death (if we’re lucky the two may happen at the same time: but they are still two, and their coincidence is rare), the writer must fall into, is angst-ridden and terrifying – and often drives us mad. ”

He seems to be of the opinion that good writing only comes from a deep dissatisfaction with one’s life. I have the tendency to become depressed, sure, but on the whole, I’m a pretty cheerful person. I love hanging out with people. I’ve been married, happily, to the same man for nearly 22 years, and that doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. I have a teenaged son who likes me well enough. I have friends who enjoy my company. I’m an awful flirt. I drink rarely, and never alone. By Delaney’s definition, I’m not much like a writer.

Would my writing reach new levels of brilliance if I started drinking? Would I become legendary if I let myself sink into depression? Would I reach the NYT bestseller lists if only I self-medicated with spray paint in a paper bag? I don’t think so. I know what actual depression, the kind only doctors can fix, feels like, and there was no creativity during that time. I work best when things are going well. The happier I am, the more words spill out all over the paper. But the silence Delaney mentioned…boy, do I feel that silence lurking. It’s the sound of ideas going wrong, the hollow echo of a well of words drying up. It’s the stalking cat on a branch above me, waiting to pounce when I give up on a story because I just can’t think of where it should go next. It’s the shadow in an alley, threatening to swallow me for not taking chances. It keeps me working, which keeps me happy.

Or maybe I’m crazy already, and I just don’t know it. 😀


6 comments to The Silence

  • Well we could all dress up in EMO clothes, paint our fingernails black, listen to really trashy music, and go on and on about how bad our life is and how no one understands us…. oh no that’s just my teenage daughter right now…
    I think a real writer is someone who has a passion for sharing stories, and most of the ones I really enjoy aren’t depressive suicidals, they’re quite funny and very naughty at times.

  • Catie,
    Well said.
    That rearing silence, claws spread, maw wide, killing teeth exposed, is indeed a terrifying beast. I guess that is why I am so flip about my writing, joking about my muse, advising myself and others to kill off a character as a way to avoid the blockage and stoppage of words and story that is that menace of silence.
    But still. No drinking alone (and not unto drunkeness, not anymore), no smoking anything, no great depression here either. That said, I might want to do something else one day. Maybe. Or not…

  • Except Catie didn’t post that, Faith… 🙂

    I’m not entirely sure what to think of the Miserable Writer phenomenon. I can’t argue that there are lots of great writers who are, or were, miserable people, but I don’t think misery and greatness go hand in hand. I can’t help thinking that often, people like Hemingway were great despite their misery, not because of it.

    I also can’t help thinking that it’s a great excuse to be a bastard, if you want to be, but really, being an artist doesn’t excuse you from being a decent human being. If you have lousy social skills, it’s probably not *because* you’re a writer, but you may be a writer because you’ve got lousy social skills.

    I personally know artists who say things like, “But the music I write is so much better when I’ve been using cocaine,” and maybe that’s true. Maybe there’s some kind of connection the drug lets their brains make that wouldn’t otherwise be there. On the other hand, overdosing at age 27, or drinking yourself to death in your early sixties, does not make for a long career, and perhaps those sparks of genius are always there, if you can live long enough to get to them.

    I sort of see the Miserable Writer as a flip side to the “I can only write when my muse moves me!” artist, for which I have no sympathy, either. If you want to be a professional writer, that muse had better be moving you damned near daily, or she’d better be making sure you’re Harper Lee and only need to write one book.

    -Catie, Grumpy Old Woman 🙂

  • “I personally know artists who say things like, “But the music I write is so much better when I’ve been using cocaine…”

    It might be true for the rare person, as you said. But when I hear someone say that, it always reminds me of the way drunk people THINK they’re as funny as Richard Pryor and Robin Williams combined. *laughs*

  • I think Delany was actually saying that many writers are depressed or drunks, not that one needs to be depressed or an addict in order to write well. He does seem to have a very persistent belief that eventually writers are overtaken by some kind of silence, although he doesn’t seem to have gone quiet himself: he recently published a book called “Dark Reflections” that I think is one of his best. Maybe he’s just lucky?

    CEMurphy — I suspect that a lot of artists who create “better” when they’re using drugs either need to be unfettered of their inhibition to write or, alternately, need a degree of emotional numbness to commit themselves to working on something. It’s also possible that drugs help unlock the unconscious, which seems to have lots of good ideas. I know that my dreams (even my nightmares) are generally more interesting and more beautiful than my short stories.

    However, I’m sure there are other ways to become uninhibited or unlock the unconscious.

  • Hmmm. Misty, Catie, I need a vacation. Time to take a break. Good thing that I’m out of town for a few weeks. Maybe I’ll find my brain.
    Cue Wizard of Oz music.