Last week we talked about the power of words and how we must use them with precision, and today we consider the counterpart of those words, the silence. After all, it’s not just what we choose to say, but what we choose not to say, that matters. To illustrate my point, I would like to share this video of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. While the whole chorus is a musical masterpiece of different voices and melodies weaving between one another, what I’d like you to listen for is at the very end of the piece. Before the last “Hallelujah” there is a break, a silence so loud it overshadows all the sounds that came before. This is the power of silence.
As writers, silence plays a role in a few different ways. Here are 4 Ways to Use Silence:
1) Which words do we use, or not use? At some point, we may run into a character who wants to use a certain word or phrase that might not sit well with us as author. We have to consider whether we omit the word or phrase, thereby in effect censoring our character, or use it despite our personal hang-ups in order to be true to that character. On the other hand, some authors might suffer from perpetual potty-mouth (or potty-pen as it were) and they must consider whether the overuse of certain words takes away the impact. Writers must consider where to place that fine line that separates censorship and dilution of language.
2) Which ideas do we express and which do we keep hidden? We’ve had a few posts on this topic here at DIY MFA. For instance, in a recent guest post, JM Cook talks about how to present ourselves as writers and how to decide what information to share. This is especially important on social media, where you’re interacting with people from different realms of your life. Given how public social media is, and the permanence of the internet, it’s important to consider what information and opinions you share and what you keep to yourself.
It all comes down to whether what you’re sharing supports your mission as a writer, or not. My mission is DIY MFA. I want to create a place that’s inclusive, egalitarian and focused on serious writing. My own political/religious/etc. opinions have nothing to do with that mission so you probably won’t hear much from me on those topics. On the other hand, my opinion about traditional MFA programs and the reasons behind why I created DIY MFA, these issues are central to DIY MFA, so when it comes to those topics, I’m very open about what I think. DIY MFA is the filter I use to determine which ideas I choose to share. Discover your own personal writing mission and your own filter will become clear.
3) What’s the difference between TMI and NEI (i.e. too much information and not enough information)? I often tell my students: your readers should be on a need-to-know basis with your story and there are many things that the reader just doesn’t need to know. As writers, we must know everything about our characters and our stories, from what your protagonist has for breakfast to the name of the villain’s childhood pet. (OK, maybe not to that extreme, but you get what I mean.) A lot of this information will help you craft your characters and create a compelling story, but rarely will any of it end up in the actual draft. When I write anything in a work of fiction, I always ask “Does the reader need to know this?” If the answer is not a resounding “YES!” I go back and take a second look.
4) Hit the mute button. I don’t know about you, but being a writer I’m constantly having conversations with my characters in my head. But eventually we all have to hit the mute button for a few moments and just sit with the silence. This is very hard for me because my head is constantly buzzing with ideas, but I often find that putting my son in the stroller and taking a brisk walk is a great way to embrace the silence. Between avoiding dog excrement on the sidewalk and making sure we don’t get trampled by NYC traffic, walking requires just enough concentration that I can’t get engrossed in some imaginary conversation. At the same time, the buzz of city streets provides enough white noise and the walking itself is automatic enough that I can also let my mind relax.