Sounds and silence and headspace

A final reflection on music for writing (see the first and second parts here).

In this reflection (which first existed as a part of my current Masters study), I look at what we are really doing when we use quiet or music for making a headspace. Is it creating silence? Is that silence for reflection? Is it tuning out the noise? Is it turning off the chatter in our heads? Is it providing a prompt for to get up and dance?


So when is silence to do with the absence of noise, and when is it the absence of noise we don’t want? 

People who go on silent retreats a lot (and you can imagine I know a lot of them) say it takes at least a day, and sometimes 3, of being in silence before the ‘inner chatter’ calms down, before there is true silence.

Some people find birdsong and tibetan bells and rushing water and white noise a good way to cut out the chatter. One of my Shut Up and Write buddies recommends this café soundtrack; another recommends the sound of a crackling fire mixed with the sound of falling rain to mask other noise and get her in the writing mood. Unfortunately, all these white noises just make me feel sea sick… (though I do really like the real sounds of working in a café, of rain falling on a tin roof, of a wood fire burning, or indeed of music.)

And when is the ‘noise’ or the ‘chatter’ inaudible, but visual or textual? Is it silent when we ‘shut up and write‘? Is it silent when I sit, dissociated from the other people in my tram, reading my Twitter feed? Was it silent when Mr Bennet retired from his family of girls to his library?

When I was doing my PhD, I needed to find lots of ways to return to my body, to be mindful and present (instead of thinking and reading and writing about things that happened 60 years ago). I made bread. I weeded my allotment. I sat in the sun and watched the dragonflies flit around my potted water garden.

More recently, I’ve found total engagement in physical activity helps me to turn off the chatter in my head.

Last semester I was working All. The. Hours. I was teaching a master’s course that had blown up from 20 enrolments to 60 on the day the course started. I had been forcibly seconded to the Giant Web Project of Doom. I had an article that was going badly, and various minor teaching gigs that I’d already said yes to. I had just about pulled it together, I had ended up running the Giant Web Project and made it manageable web project that was about to go live, when a senior manager threw a totally unexpected spanner in the works. I was ropeable. So I went to No Lights, No Lycra and stood in the semi-dark, not speaking, with 70 strangers and danced my heart out. I came home a different person.

This is what they started with:

I guess silence is not monolithic, and what matters is not sound/not-sound, images/blank, together/alone… but a place where you can stop, feel safe, find calm. A way to retreat and then return to engagement, however that might work for each of us. 


Each of these posts has garnered a huge response–thank you! The diversity has been fascinating, but also the fact that none of us are alone, even in our ways of constructing solitude. What do you use to create ‘space’?


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


Related Posts

On rejecting feedback

You might worry that examiners and reviewers will outright reject your work if you don’t accept every single piece of feedback, but I can tell you from experience, that is not true. I first had to learn how to reject feedback for my PhD examination, and have used the same skills to deal with journal articles, monographs and how-to books. It’s not IF you accept the feedback, it’s HOW you reject it that will matter in deciding whether the final piece is acceptable.

Read More

Get the latest blog posts