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Making Room for Silence

image by Giulia van Pelt

One of the secrets to balancing a busy life is doing more than one thing at a time. We listen to audiobooks while we drive, manage a hands-off dinner with our Instant Pots, send work emails from our phones in the grocery store checkout line, and so on and so on.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a lot of us. The opposite, even. Without multitasking I’d get a lot less sleep. I’m guessing many of you, balancing writing with myriad other priorities, are in the same boat.

But I’m in the phase of writing a new book where I have an endless supply of knotty problems to think through, and as I multitask, I’ve realized that thinking through those problems requires a new strategy.

I need to make room for silence.

Reading is both necessity and luxury for me, both work and leisure. Any writer who doesn’t read constantly, both classic and current books, is neglecting one of the best ways we have of becoming better writers. So for my entertainment reading, I’ve largely shifted over to audiobooks. My ears are full of thrillers and romances and historical fiction and more anytime I’m behind the wheel of a car or satisfying my Fitbit’s endless thirst for steps.

But now that I’m in this active phase of writing, when I need to ponder character development and plot twists and how to write my way out of the hole I’ve written myself into — I’ve found my audiobook obsession is standing in the way. Even music occupies my attention in a way that doesn’t let me puzzle out the best way to depict a turning point between characters. For that, nothing but silence will do.

I used to say I was always jealous of my writer friends who got their best ideas while exercising; for a long time, mine always came in the kitchen. If you think about it, though, there’s commonality between the two. When our bodies are occupied but our minds are free, that’s when we have the most time to think. Same principle applies to writers whose breakthroughs happen in the shower: you’re not writing, you’re not talking, you’re not working, you’re just thinking. When you can fully apply yourself to thinking, it’s only common sense that your thoughts will be more helpful, productive thoughts.

Our lives are busy. Our world is busy. We have access to more information, more sound, than ever before. But if you’re a writer, take a look at how much sound you’re letting in, and when. There may be times you need to turn it all off.

How do you create space for silence? For the thinking work that is so essential to writing?

About Jael McHenry [2]

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter [3] (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com [4] or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.