The Quiet Machine

by Ada Limón

I’m learning so many different ways to be quiet. There’s how I stand in the lawn, that’s one way. There’s also how I stand in the field across from the street, that’s another way because I’m farther from people and therefore more likely to be alone. There’s how I don’t answer the phone, and how I sometimes like to lie down on the floor in the kitchen and pretend I’m not home when people knock. There’s daytime silent when I stare, and nighttime silent when I do things. There’s shower silent and bath silent and California silent and Kentucky silent and car silent and then there’s the silence that comes back, a million times bigger than me, sneaks into my bones and wails and wails and wails until I can’t be quiet anymore. That’s how this machine works.

Craft Notes

When we at Longleaf decided to run a Weekend Workshop Intensive to correspond with each issue, I knew right away what I wanted the first one to about — silence. I had spoken with a poet-friend of mine who studied music, who said that writing a poem calls on her time studying at the Royal Conservatory in that repetition is a chorus, and that chorus builds a theme, and what’s interesting is when the poet adds a variation on that theme. I didn’t ask about the rests in music, the silent stretches, but I should have.

Silence can mean so many different things. My partner’s family views all silences as awkward, all silences as signs that there is some unspoken anger roiling in the air. I’ve never seen it that way. I’ve always viewed silence as a default mode, an old friend, a comfortable sweater. I’ve always been comfortable in silence.

Right now, though, we’re in a time of eerie silence, with non-essential businesses mostly or completely closed. Even still, there is some beauty in this silence. I lived in Toronto, which is normally quite loud for my not-a-big-city-person ears. But yesterday, when I ventured a walk, I could hear so many birds. I learned the sound a cardinal makes, despite having seen countless cardinals in my life. The birdie-birdie-birdie trill was the only sound on the deserted street, so I stood and followed the sound with my eyes, until I found the source, perched high up in a bare-branched tree. And I stood and listened.

In Maud Casey’s craft essay “Everything Is Listening: The Sound of Silence in Fiction,” she notes that “writing can make a shape — many, many shapes — out of a silence.” She goes on to add that “silence isn’t negative space or absence or lack; it is the invisible world made visible; or, if not exactly visible, perceptible.”

At the beginning of the script for What a Young Wife Ought to Know, Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch provides a guide to all the different types of silence the creative team will encounter in the play:

Dash ( — ): a dash at the end of a line of dialogue indicates a cut-off

Dash2 ( — ): a dash in the middle of a line of dialogue indicates a quick change in thought or a stutter

Ellipsis ( . . . ): an ellipsis at the end of a line indicates a trail-off

Ellipsis 2 ( . . . ): an ellipsis in the middle of a line indicates a hesitation or a mental search for a thought or a word

Ellipsis 3 ( . . . dialogue . . . ): an ellipses on either side of a line of dialogue indicates a person who is speaking over the other character or trying to interrupt the other character

Slash ( / ): indicates the point at which the character that speaks next interrupts the character that is currently speaking

Beat: approximately a one-count

Pause: approximately a three-count

Silence: approximately a six-count

Questions & Exercises

Today is not a writing-heavy day; it’s more of a thinking and reading day. But if you’d like, please jot down answers to the following questions:

What are the different shapes of silence?

What are the different meanings of silence?

What happens when silence is misinterpreted or when two different understandings of silence meet and collide? What about when an understanding of silence is shared?

What are the different contexts in which silences occur? How is the silence of the morning different from the silences at night? Solitary versus collective silence? Silence after or preceding an explosion?

How are silences filled? What happens if you have to sit in silence, under a variety of circumstances? What if you are joyful in silence? Mournful in silence? Detached in silence? What sounds might fill that silence?

I’m going to be that person (I’m so sorry) and suggest that you sit and watch this. After you’ve finished, take note of what sounds and sensations filled the space within and outside of you.