In Soundproofing We Trust

by Joan Frank

October 2014

We all tune in, almost around the clock, to the aural avalanche.

Advisories, instruction, rules. Pointers, scoldings, sermons. Warnings, prayers. Parables. Jokes.

They seem to spawn: articles and essays about how to write, what to write, when and where to write, for whom, even why to write. On Facebook we find a roaring Niagara Falls of counsel. Experts and neophytes go at it, hashing out issues related to the calling. There's no end to the blogs and critiques and commentary, a fair portion of those by people with solid authority.

Yet there comes a moment in any writer's life when she knows it's time to slam shut the windows (presuming they're soundproof) and draw the curtains; time to turn off the devices and unplug whatever's still plugged—except, of course, her writing machine.

It's a telling moment—almost physically dictated, like the moment of knowing you can't eat another bite.

For that reason, fellow writers, for heaven's (and art's) sake, pay attention!

I confess myself a prime perpetrator: daily scanning the never-ending tickertape of gabble, most of it artfully done by superb sources (both living and dead). And after awhile I start to feel a little sick, as if I'd eaten too much icing from a stale cake.

That's when I know it's time to seal off all the noise.

The threshold of basta (enough), as noted, makes its arrival very clear. And this moment proves crucial: knowing when to turn away from the others, cut the intravenous feed, pull the earbuds, stop tracking. Put away the magazines and articles (yes, like this one). Close the website pages pulsing with multiple links. This is the pivot point of sinking down, spacing out, letting yourself dream deeply and—sooner or later—start fingerpainting (one of many analogies for the writing process).

This when you get into the paint up to your armpits, arms and face splashed with color, making a big mess in perfect freedom, solitude, and peace.

Think back on these blissful intervals, and consider how they happened.

For myself, I have noticed (after diving into one of those Technicolor dreams) that I was never thinking of anyone else's coaching, cautions, commands, or opinions.

I only remember that the secret heart of the thing in front of me—another analogy—the heart that I was tunneling my way toward with a teaspoon, knew what it wanted to be. I didn't know. But it did. And if I would only be sufficiently patient, receptive, curious, compassionate, alert and attentive, it would do its best to guide me there.

Let's mull some medical analogies.

There's the period of laying down the writing's bones. Then comes the period of fleshing it out. Then more flesh. Then refining. Liposuction. Then coloration, texture, light, sound, action. Then visually breaking down the gathered words, studying the prose's texture, freight, and the order of its components. It may be necessary to move those elements around, delete some, deepen others. Then sewing up incisions with your tiniest, most invisible stitches. And finally there's the re-passing through, also known as revision. But revision is such a miserable word—let's use re-pass, like the French verb repasser, which can mean, among myriad other definitions, ironing, a delicious connotation (even if it pulls yet another analogy into the mix).

So I re-pass over those pages again and again, hundreds of times, until I feel that Every. Word. And. Punctuation. Mark. —is absolutely the only possible thing that can or should be there, and (what's more) that each stands in right relationship to its neighbors; that each sentence and phrase and passage stand in right relationship to their neighbors—therefore that the whole can get upright, bear weight.

During all this, I do not recite any mantra or slogan.

I don't harken back to anything I read or heard, or anybody's lesson.

I push until I know I cannot do one more blessed thing to make the whole be what I believe it believes it has to be.

Then I let the work rest, because I've gone blind for a while.

Then, as soon as eyesight returns, I check it out again.

Maybe I noodle with it just a little more.

Then I shove up my sleeves to begin the next step: offering it into the world. (That's another discussion.)

What all this adds up to—if you've the least uncertainty about it by now—is developing a very special quality of trust: trust in your own unconscious as it draws from memory, dreams, happenstance—and trust in your conscious will, as it works to organize, shape, and smooth (repasser!) the results.

Strangely, this trust does not translate directly as confidence.

There's a difference. A bazillion authors, many quite famous, admit they're pretty much lost at the beginning of every new project, and for the longest stretch, sometimes the duration of it, have only the vaguest idea what they are doing.

They do not love that—but they trust it. Enough to miss it when they're on tour!

The trust I am describing means you've somehow come to understand that—based on a few repeat-performances, and a kind of reckless internal bet—the story will shake itself out, through your own confusion. You accrue (by the above steps) a willingness to dwell with uncertainty until the thing takes hold.

The more you do this, the stronger the trust.

We trust, too, that the wisdom we've absorbed from writers we admire was never lost on us. Instead, it has collected at the brain's base like an underground water table, and seeps upward, into the action of writing, of reaching for language.

But that lovely function works best un-pushed, un-harassed—and in silence.


It falls to us to shut out all other noise, all the other voices. Then write.

Joan FrankComment