aawallSilence and Not-Knowing: An Introduction

If I had to name our household’s mantra, it would probably be “go look it up.” This, of course, is the most basic response to not-knowing: researching in order to learn, confirm or dispel. (For example, a certain person always wanted to be a hostage negotiator, until, in her research, she discovered that it wasn’t a freelance gig, she’d have to join the FBI, learn about firearms, actually use the word “firearms” and just because she’s good with dogs and thirteen-year-olds, doesn’t mean she’d be all that effective with other desperados.)

So okay, teach your children: don’t be lazy; research thoroughly. But today, I’d like to start further back, before the urge to research takes hold, and consider the notion that, from the outset, how we stand in relation to not-knowing forms our sensibility and dictates aesthetic choices.

Any writer’s relationship to the state of  “not-knowing” is complicated. One response is to rush in quickly and fill up the scary silence and space. And while intense, white-water sensibilities can astound (the brilliant, torrential David Foster Wallace, for example), in many other cases, writing born of this response, this impulse to fill all gaps, feels instead eager to get the job done. Such a drive, the precise opposite of Negative Capability, is often marked by an insular, fussy density, reliance on a Big Story (to the exclusion of say, lyrical lingering and curious reflection), and, very often, a forcing of pattern instead of an authentically discovered series of alignments.

For me, the state of not-knowing where a poem or essay I’m writing – or even a book I’m reading – is headed, is constituted by a particular form of silence – I can almost hear it; it’s alert – like the stillness before snow. (I should say this state of unknowing, as a sensation, is not altogether pleasant; it consists, too, of feeling kind of dopey, not up to the task and yet naggingly persistent in the face of the task – sort of the way a mosquito is insistent.)

So here’s where I’m going: Recently, I was asked, by a fine online publication**, for a playlist of songs to accompany my collection of essays, On Looking. The idea was that you’d play these songs while reading my work, or get a sense of my work by listening to songs I’d chosen as accompaniment. Instead, I wrote a brief essay in response, (which this fine publication accepted, bless their hearts) called “Silence Is My Playlist.” To neatly recap, then – I mean to address what the narrator doesn’t know by musing on that particular state of unknowingness we all wrangle with, and by suggesting that such a state is profoundly important as well as fragile and easily overrun, and that we’d do well to take care of it, both as writers and as readers.

Silence Is My Playlist (On Being Asked for One to Go with My Work)

Some drinkers drink mainly for a mood.

Some days offer up a mood before you even get out of bed.

Some moments of childhood establish a mood so elemental you’ll recognize it ever-after, unbidden, in unlikely places. That grey sky/deep cold/scent of snow coming/far off flagpole catching the weak morning light can reappear anywhere – Baltimore or Warsaw; while walking home after work; in the scent of chicken frying in a neighbor’s kitchen. Such eidetic moments reinstate, reconstitute, whatever it is they do, by way of a micro-moment’s alignment. What they need is silence to find their way back – a crack, an opening, an alertness bestowed.

Some moods, sure, you can conjure and feed – say when driving. Music works to solidify those. Alone in a car. Missing him. Missing her. You and your music together (like “Born to Run” or “Desolation Row”). I do this, too. All the time: mood-arranging. Which isn’t real listening, but okay, who doesn’t want to tend the aches of distance and desire, animate and lavish them.

But my work is not a drive at night that wants musical accompaniment.

My work wants you.

Let’s discuss bravery. Sunday, the steepness of midafternoon. Late fall, alone in the house with a few minor chores: should you pick up a book or sit down to write in the depths of that stillness, you are a brave soul, indeed. Because there it is, stay with it – it’s in the chair’s weave, the crumbs on the toaster – the question, masquerading as light, stillness, quiet: Who am I? Why am I here? And, of course: Now what? How to withstand them? By what means fortify yourself?

Each essay’s received from who-knows-where, a thing constructed within the limits of whatever capacity one has for sitting down to it. Each poem is a record of an attempt. Each letter or sketch, an approximate, made thing. A provisional hold. For months, sometimes years – very rarely, days – one works with words. And in that time, words shape the writer. A mutual kind of construction occurs. It’s a way of being that’s full of surprises. It’s also incomplete until firmed up, rooted, stabilized by you, reader, balancing, triangulating.

A soundtrack overrides all this. Asserts another offering – say, music’s emotional inflection. Are you afraid, with no soundtrack, words will be lost on you? That you as a reader will have to follow, and may want to stop, think and weigh, and maybe hold some sounds in your very own mouth – which takes time, and you haven’t got time? Or that you’ll feel strained, not sure of the point for a while? Or there are so many other things to get done, that sitting and reading makes you nervous?

I understand these concerns. But silence is more than it seems.

Silence invites. In silence, there is ambient sound galore. Right now? Plane going over; neighbor’s dog barking; deep sighs; squirrels on the roof; a garbage truck grinding – really, not much silence at all. So much makes up a moment of silence! How tires-on-gravel, or leaves-in-wind accompany. Is this not enough of a soundscape – an unfolding day, into which you could settle, with words? To listen means you’re able to be still – maybe just for a moment, before the need for more asserts again.

I recently saw a clip of would-be young actors interviewing Kevin Spacey. One guy wanted advice about entering “the lean years” he called them; he wanted “help appreciating the lean years leading up to the ultimate prize.” Spacey says, immediately, “There is no prize,” and then, pointing to his own chest, “The only prize is this one – and what you feel and what you want to accomplish.” He talks for another few seconds about growing up with your colleagues, relying on and learning from one another, and then says, “Listen: if you feel your particular talent is worth developing, is worth caring for…then there is nothing you can’t achieve.” And then it happens. Immediately. The music comes. Someone cued the damn music, some variation on Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” but not quite so sad. The music continues as the camera pans over the audience of earnest, slightly teary faces.

To me, that soundtrack says, “We already know what you want to feel.” And judging by those earnest faces, “Reinforce what I’m supposed to be feeling here.” Why might this be desirable? Because it’s not easy to be alone with your thoughts. It’s not easy to think. The presence of a soundtrack stages experience, so you can sit back and watch it, not have to be in it on your own. And who doesn’t want to be so confirmed? To have an experience wrapped up and returned, an empty space populated. But that isn’t a gift. That’s no surprise.

Let me update here Frost’s famous dictum, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” in this way: “No silence to listen by, no surprise in the hearing.”

Consider Spacey’s words again, without the music. “If you feel your particular talent is worth developing, is worth caring for…there’s nothing you can’t achieve.” Right at the outset, he suggests: weigh your gifts, take stock of your goods. Unencumbered by a soundtrack, you’ll hear how the emphasis lands on the first part of the sentence and not on the trumped and triumphant end of the phrase. The word “if” grows large, and so does the word “worth” (repeated twice!). Such a question, about “the ultimate prize,” misguided as it is, deserves a well-considered response. Spacey offers it, as a question in return: Have you first, he suggests, looked honestly at yourself and your capacities?  (Which of course implies that if you haven’t taken stock, forget it . . .) Who relies on a soundtrack overrides the silence in which one might hear one’s own best response – and replaces it with a simplistic, cartoonish blast – in this instance, a blast of cloying, can-do optimism.

Doing only one thing at a time is scary, and practically iconoclastic these days. What you feared might be true, though well-concealed by the multi-task, is true: you are small, limited, finite, and over too soon. The paradox is, of course, that such focus – on one thing at a time – enlarges, makes you feel part of being in a different way. Attention paid allows you to exist better, by entering into a moment, a task – not by forgetting yourself, letting a playlist take your hand, take you away, hand you a feeling – say “poignant” or “moving.”

Anyway – and here’s the eros of it all – when we’re together, I want to be only with you. I want you to be only with me. I’m possessive that way. Demanding/responsive. Jealous/abiding. I want you to be with my ideas, cadence, leaps, speculations – with the words that here I put down, and work through and work over, for you, whoever you are, just you.

**Brevity is grateful to Drunken Boat for allowing us to reprint Lia Purpura’s essay, “Silence Is My Playlist (On Being Asked for One to Go with My Work),” first published in Drunken Boat, issue #13.

Lia Purpura’s new collection of essays, Rough Likeness, will be out in January 2012. Her recent books include On Looking (essays, Sarabande Books), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and King Baby (poems, Alice James Books), winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award. The recipient of NEA and Fulbright Fellowships, three Pushcart prizes, and the AWP Award Nonfiction, her recent work appears in Agni, Field, The Georgia Review, Orion, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and The Best American Essays, 2011. She is Writer in Residence at Loyola University, in Baltimore, MD, and teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program.

Photo by Dinty W. Moore