Why quiet is essential to your creative practice

For the last 15 days I’ve been writing a series of posts on creative fear, to take myself – and anyone else who wants to follow – past the barriers that keep us from creating. The series began with a personal essay on the need for quiet if we’re to be creative at all.

Originally published with the support of my backers on Patreon.

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We live in a very noisy world. Even putting aside all the noise we can’t control – the party next door, the six lane highway a block over, plane flight paths, the tinny rattle of somebody elses iPod on the daily commute – many, perhaps most of us,  choose to soak our senses in a 24 hour a day noisefest. Hands up who has a radio on all night? TV in the morning? Podcasts while at the computer? Led Zeppelin in the shower? Background muzak while cooking? It’s endless.

Why do we do this?

I put it to you that we do this to distract ourselves. And because the distraction is unremmiting and focused on us, I also put forward the suggestion that what we’re seeking distraction from is our self.

When I was 18 my mother died. I’d never been at all ambitious, in fact I was quite a lazy teenager, my only real interests were absorbing stories in any digestible form, and then writing my own. But two years of watching my mum collapse under the weight of cancer changed me. We were a single parent family living on benefits, and as my mum got sicker and sicker, I realised that our poor existence was a big part of what was killing her. I was furious, the kind of permanent anger that after long enough you don’t even see any more.

I had dropped out of college when mum got sick. I went back. I wanted to prove that being poor didn’t mean I or my mum where any less than anybody else. With literally no money on the day I got there, I went to university. I worked every crappy job there was to pay for it. I could have got better jobs, but if you’re furious, jobs where you finish the day exhausted are a bonus. I did a masters degree. I tussled with an excellent recreational drug addiction. I smashed through two different careers and a long term relationship.

For twelve years I never stopped. Sometimes, often, I had intense waking dreams of stories, but I never gave them space to grow. I had to keep fighting the world, if I stopped for a moment to write it would win. And all the time, like so many people, there was noise. Televison. Films. Earphones. Smartphones. Parties. Constant conversation. Meetings. Projects. Games. There is, in this modern world, always some way you can fill every moment with noise. And I did, for twelve years solid.

Eventually, if you don’t stop, your body, or your mind, or the boss of both – your soul – will stop you. I was thirty and I’d just returned home from America (after attending the Clarion writer’s workshop) and all three ganged up on me and shouted “Enough is enough! No more Damo!” and that was that. It didn’t happen in a single moment, but over the next few months I started kicking out all the sources of noise. I found a counsellor. The first thing she suggested was that we sit quietly together. I found a meditation teacher. Apparently meditation is just sitting quietly. A revelation! Who knew?!

And once I was being quiet, I realised what all the noise was for. For twelve years I’d thought I was working towards something. A career. Success. But actually I was running away from someone. I was running away from the slightly lazy kid who loved reading and writing stories, who hadn’t been strong enough to deal with losing his mum. I was running away from my self.

The next couple of years were kind of…squelchy. There was a lot of crying. After twelve years where I barely squeezed out a tear, and sat on an unploded neutron bomb of unprocesed emotion, I had a lot of squelching to do. I had to learn to stop distracting myself with the noise, and start facing what waited for me when the world went quiet. And as I did, slowly and truly, I began to write stories again.

THERE’S NO FUCKING WAY I’M DOING THAT, I hear you scream. That’s OK. I ain’t going to make you. But if something in this resonates with something in you, here are some suggestions :

1. Switch off the TV. Televisions place your mind into a receptive state mich like dreaming. Which would be OK if they didn’t then fill your mind with things that make you feel awful about yourself. Watch good quality TV in box sets without adverts, otherwise just switch the thing off.

2. Spend 5 minutes a day in silence. I don’t mean reading a book or asleep. You don’t have to sit in the lotus position, or burn incense. Just switch everything off and don’t do anything. Extend the time up to 20 minutes if you can. That’s enough. If you want some advanced practice, try naming your thoughts. “I’m thinking about work. I’m thinking about chocolate. I’m thinking about thinking.” You can try not thinking if you want, it’s fun to realise that you can’t.

3. Spend a whole day doing nothing. I don’t mean eating chocolate and watching re-runs of West Wing. I mean doing nothing. Phone in sick, switch everything off, then sit on your butt and do nothing. You gan go for a walk, but you can’t go anywhere. You can eat, but nothing special. As “spiritual experiences” go this is better than meeting the Dalai Lama while high on Mescaline. Nothing will happen, nothing will change, it will feel like a total waste of time and that. Is. The. Point.

To read the complete series on creative fear, please visit my Patreon page.

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9 thoughts on “Why quiet is essential to your creative practice”

  1. Great post. I got rid of TV at least a decade ago and I’ve never been so creative. TV is such a passive way to spend time. I’d be interested to know exactly what goes on in the brain, when one essentially does not have to put much effort into processing the information, in comparison to radio (which at least requires the visualization centres of the brain to be active), reading, and actively creating- be it writing, playing an instrument, painting etc.

    Have you come across the research which suggests the brain is more active during periods of daydreaming than when it is processing external stimuli?

    It’s a rare occasion I even want to watch a film or series, now I’ve kicked the habit. I can’t bear noise everywhere all the time. I don’t know how people can live near airports: it can’t be good for their health and well-being. I too need silence to create, silence to think, silence to just be. I’ve got to the point where I need earplugs to be able to sleep because noise disturbs me so much. The ironic thing is, I’m a kit drummer and an old(ish) punk-rocker!

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    1. Thanks Lauren. I’d be interested to see that research. I live in India at the moment, which is crazy noisy! But its also a great place for meditation. One helps the other a lot.

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