Listening Below The Noise

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Anne LeClaire’s new book explores the many faces of silence

I have never felt comfortable with silence. Alone in the house, I insist on having the radio or television playing in the background. I write in cafés, not in libraries or log cabins in the middle of nowhere. If there is a gap in a conversation, I feel the need to quickly fill it, even with some dull observation about the weather.

It was therefore with much curiosity that I witnessed novelist and journalist Anne LeClaire practicing an entire day of silence. We were at a writing workshop in France in the summer of 2005; I had begun her latest novel, The Law of Bound Hearts, and wanted to tell her how much I was loving it. When I approached her, I was greeted by a placard that read, “I am having a day of silence.” LeClaire smiled serenely whilst I, perplexed and awkward, struggled to remember what I had come to say.

Listening below the Noise: A Meditation on the Practice of Silence is LeClaire’s first book-length work of nonfiction. Part memoir, part philosophical inquiry, it discusses her extraordinary decision seventeen years ago to spend two days a month in total silence. Each neatly themed chapter opens with an evocative photograph by her son, photographer Christopher D. LeClaire; the poetic and intimate prose that follows describes the rewards and the struggles of her practice, and the reactions of her family, friends, and strangers.

Woven into her own experiences and musings are engaging stories and quotations from history, literature, and religion that place her exploration in context. From Saint Arsenius: “I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having kept silent.” Herman Melville: “Silence is the one and only voice of God.” Confucius: “Silence is the friend who never betrays.”

Anne LeClaire

Anne LeClaire

Listening below the Noise resists simple classification as it richly draws on this “history of silence” as much as it does LeClaire’s personal journey. Her keen self-awareness helps her see subtleties and make important distinctions. She is careful to emphasize the two-fold “Janus” face of silence, to place voluntary silence in sharp opposition to imposed silence: “To be silenced is crippling, constricting, disempowering. Chosen stillness can be healing, expansive, instructive.”

And silence, of course, enables other activities, helping one to develop important skills. There is a wonderful chapter on differentiating “the four kinds of listening”: “1) Listening but not hearing, 2) Listening and connecting with one’s own agenda, 3) Listening and hearing without a personal agenda, 4) Intuitive listening, meaning not only hearing what is being spoken but what is not being said. Deep listening.”

Other chapters explore different boundaries—between aloneness and loneliness, a busy life and a meaningful life, mindful and mindless living— and how silence can help us get, and stay, on the right side of the fence. “Silence, along with the attention it fosters, is our anchor to the present, to the here and now… I [found] in [the practice of silence] the meaning of commitment and attentiveness, the center of soul.” A writer by profession, LeClaire also has much to say about the relationship between silence and writing: “Creativity and imagination require space to flower, and I had long known the truth of Picasso’s statement, ‘Without great solitude no serious work is possible.’”

Listening below the Noise is a refreshing and important book for an age in which people increasingly tend to avoid silence, continually tuning in to noise and information: cell phones, iPods, the Internet. In this context, silence can seem strange, even magical—as it does in Kevin Brockmeier’s story “The Year of Silence,” featured in last year’s Best American Short Stories anthology. It is precisely this magic that LeClaire urges us to seek in her closing chapter, offering advice about how we can carve out time to devote to silence in the midst of our demanding modern lives.

There are many ways to sow the seeds. Listen and in the quiet you will hear the direction of your heart.
The garden of silence is always there.
Patiently waiting.
We only have to claim it.

Sophie Powell is the author of the novel The Mushroom Man, as well as short stories and two screenplays. She teaches creative writing at Boston College and Grub Street and is assistant director of Abroad Writers Conferences. More from this author →