Recently I attended a secular conversation at which the word “Source” was batted around the way religious folks use the word “God.” I find “Source” a helpful term, although perhaps not big enough to encompass my sense of divine presence. But it got me thinking: What’s a writer’s source? What grounds us and inspires us? From where do we draw our creative energy?
Of course there’s no single answer to this question, but among the many answers is silence. “Silence is where we locate our voice,” Terry Tempest Williams said in an interview with Lorraine Berry. “In silence, the noises outside cease so the dialogue inside can begin.”
Writing is essentially a contemplative practice. The writer must settle down and listen through the emptiness of the blank page and the echoing mind to the small stirrings of the heart. I’ve always loved Anne Frank’s bald statement of longing: “I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart.” The impulse to write is a manifestation of our human desire to bring the silent, inner movement of the heart out into the world.
Writers’ relationship with silence is key. Silence makes us squirm, it leads us to despair, it can overwhelm us, and yet every worthwhile word ever written emerges from it. Silence is the source of creation, and more—it’s also the source of human transformation. Mark Rothko commented that artists search “for those pockets of silence where we can root and grow.” Isn’t that what happens when we write? We encounter a tiny pocket of internal quiet, root a tiny part of ourselves in it, and grow from there alongside the emergent words and ideas.
Barbara Brown Taylor, a pastor and seminary professor, wrote to her fellow clergy-people:
“If we simply dip our cups into the noisy torrent of the world and serve it up with a little theological parsley on top, people will learn to look elsewhere for food. At the very least, we owe them words we have dug up with our own hands, words we have brought back from our own encounter with the silence. Our authority to speak is rooted in our ability to remain silent.”
I believe all writers have this same mandate. Our parsley of choice might be humor or cynicism or environmentalism or cuss words, but regardless, it won’t satisfy. Language and stories and reflections that nourish readers come from a bigger source, one we barely recognize and can’t begin to understand but know, intimately, every time we sit in silence, pen in hand.