Wednesday, July 8, 2009

On Silence... Anne LeClaire listens below the noise

HALLIE: My father used to say that my sisters and I were all vaccinated with phonograph needles and that explained why we never shut up. So I was fascinated when novelist Anne LeClaire (Entering Normal and The Lavender Hour) shared with me her practice of choosing 24 hours of silence every other Monday for the last 17 years. (photo by Christopher LeClaire)

The Cape Cod author’s new book, “Listening Below the Noise: A Meditation on the Practice of Silence” (HarperCollins) is a memoir and a meditation on her experiences and on the power of silence.

Jungle Red is pleased to welcome Anne LeClaire to Jungle Red. Anne, what happened 17 years ago that set you on this path?

ANNE LECLAIRE: It was a gorgeous January day and I was walking on the beach. I do that every day, but that day my best friend’s mother was dying and I was in a tender place. I watched some eider ducks dive for food and noticed how long they stayed under water. I thought, how amazing that these little creatures with lungs about the size of my thumb could stay submerged for longer than I could hold my breath.

I think there’s something about when we’re tenderhearted we open to the universe, which is one of the roles grief plays in our life, and I thought about the many things I was grateful for. I thought, I love my husband, friends, and I have enormous privilege of doing what I do for a living. It’s not as if I haven’t known loss and grief but even that I’m grateful for because of what it’s taught me.

As I was thinking about this I teared up. I didn’t know what do. A man behind me on the beach said, “Sit in silence.” I turned around and there was no one there.

Nothing like that has ever happened before or since. It was so profound and real it called me to attention. What could that mean? And I thought maybe it just means: Be quiet.

HALLIE: So you did?

ANNE LECLAIRE: I went home and told my husband, “I’m not going to talk tomorrow.” I spent the next day in silence. That experience was so profound in so many ways, just stopping cold in this mad roller coaster of life and spending a day alone with myself in my normal world. It was life changing, and I don’t use that term casually. My writing that day was very smooth and focused. I heard things in myself that normally there’s too much chatter to hear. The day slowed down in a delicious way. I felt so restored and rested at the end of the day.

I liked it so much that I decided, two weeks later, that I’d do it again. I began to see what happens when we make space for creative thoughts to rise up without the noise we usually have. I began to read about sounds and how artists and musicians talk about need of resilience in the creative process. I knew I wanted to do it again.

But the next Monday came and it was awful. I was very anxious, I wanted to stop. At lunch time I took a walk and I realized a very old sorrow had risen up. I thought, now I see what happens when the noise stops. All the things I’ve been running from will catch up. Silence is not always a place of peace. I sat with it and didn’t push it to the place that we cover with noise and action. I began to think a lot about why we have a life so filled with noise, why silence can be so uncomfortable.

Since then, I do this twice a month, every first and third Monday. Silence has taught me to listen to myself and to the people around me and to my characters.

HALLIE: How did the book come about?

ANNE LECLAIRE: A friend who was writing a book told her editor about my silent practice, and she asked me to write about it. At first I said no. I didn’t have the time. Then I put down some ideas, a 17-chapter breakdown. I wanted to write about the correlation between silence and creativity, how silence teaches us to listen. What it does for us physiologically and psychologically.

Then the editor left that publishing house and I put the project on the back burner. My agent said one day, “It’s time for the silence book.” I sent her a few chapters and an outline. HarperCollins was enthusiastic.

HALLIE: When it was published, did you feel as if you’d struck a nerve

ANNE LECLAIRE: It’s been so generously received. Every day there’s a letter or phone call from someone. What it speaks to is the understanding we have on some level that we do need silence. Now I present workshops and seminars- as well as longer three day retreats – exploring not only silence but also listening and why it is so difficult to both listen and hear. Why we’re afraid of being open to what people say without our own agenda, and why we are afraid of silence and need it.

HALLIE: You were open to the possibility of silence.

ANNE LECLAIRE: I often think that day on the beach, what if I’d had ear buds and an Ipod playing. How many moments do we miss because we’re not in a place of silence.

HALLIE: Anne will be visiting Jungle Red today, so belay the silence for the moment at least and please share questions, comments, or what happens to you when you turn off the noise.

Labels: Anne LeClaire, Living Below the Noise, Silence


  1. Hi Anne, thanks for stopping by Jungle Red to tell us about your book. Does your silence involve a hiatus from email too? And what does you husband do while you aren't talking? is he forced into silence too?

    I attended a one-day silent meditation workshop a few years ago--the instructor occasionally gave us direction, but the rest of us kept silent, including at an awkward lunch table. I didn't have any epiphanies, but I suspect I didn't give it a proper chance.

  2. Welcome, Anne. I'm afraid I'm not very good at silence or meditation. I've tried various meditations and after a couple of minutes my mind is leaping all over the place.
    And when I'm on my own in a big city, I relish the freedom of being alone for about two days, then I start chatting with store clerks.

  3. Hi, Roberta. Silence days are a hiatus from e-mails. And text messaging. And all manner of noise. And it is amazing what rises up in the space and fertile ground of silence.

    And Rhys I know what you mean about monkey mind. But I relish the opportunity to observe what occupies my brain. Silence days afford me the chance to befriend myself. And slow things down in a hectic world.

    My husband hated it at first, but in the fourth or fifth year he said it had taught him that most things aren't as important as we like to think, a valuable lesson in these days of false urgency.

  4. Whoops. See that I am now Anonymous. I'll try and follow directions this time and use my name. If it comes up Anonymous again, just know it's me, Anne.

  5. Hi Anne -

    Thanks so much for sharing your story here. I am anxious to read your book.

    Yes, silence is more than golden isn't it? Silence is the gold of life.

    There is a mistaken notion for some that meditation is about "stopping" your thoughts. For me meditation and silence is about watching your thoughts and the connected emotions. It doesn't mean that thoughts don't stop at some point, however, I watch the thoughts and emotions that come up. That opens the doorway as to what's up for me in terms of my in-most feelings. Yes, the ones that noise and even thoughts cover over. The ones we sometimes fear and don't want to address as you noted.

    An Australian mystic and friend of mine teaches that "presence" is the doorway to God. In the present moment there is just you - any attempt to "think" takes you out of the present. I see silence as the present moment as the thoughts drop away. Thoughts may come and thoughts may go ... and yet "I" remain... in the silence you can truly apprehend yourself...

    Your beach story about how you began to practice silence was an amazing story. A grace for you - certainly a defining moment in your life. And, in that moment all life changes. And, surprisingly enough, all it takes is that moment and some gutsy resolve to drastically change your life.

    Every hour I practice about 1-2 min. of total presence... no thoughts .... just come out of my head ... out of the noise and see what is here right now... this flower, this incredible view from my window... this desk... this lamp in the room... if judgments arise in that moment I see them for what they are - my mind's evalation of the present moment... it's not the truth, just a version of the truth...

    I have eaten in silence at retreats and as your husband found out - I learned that most times there is very little that "needs" to be said.

  6. Anne--how wonderful that you followed the instruction instead of heading off to a shrink! How often to we turn away from those unexpected gifts? I grew up with meditation, and with cogitation, which is different, but can be the first part of the silence. I'll be glad to see your take on what we call "practicing the presence."

    The cover photo on your book is inviting.

    Not Anne, just annonymous

  7. What an interesting exercise. I wonder if I could make it through a day without talking, without e-mails, if I weren't already alone in my space.

    Thanks, Anne.

  8. Thanks all for you thoughtful comments. MTV, my experience, too, has been that silence is a tool that anchors me in the present. And I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn't been in a quiet space that day on the beach. What opportunities do we miss every day because we can't hear the wisdom for the noise.

  9. Thank you, Anne...

    YOur beach experience brings me to tears.

    Im in NYC, at a conference, ready to go to dinner in GrandCentral Station. Hmm.

  10. Speaking of beach, Hank, when are you escaping NYC and coming to the Cape to walk on your beach?

  11. Does talking to yourself count? Do you stop the inner dialogue, too? Is that even possible? I love this, and look forward trying it. Sometimes when I travel for work I enjoy the hotel time because I can just be quiet. Not quite the same as the Cape but it works. Thanks, Anne, you've given me something to shoot for next week. I'll be hiking in Yosemite and that's a wonderful place to be quiet (and pretend you're John Muir.)
    Hank, I must have just missed you at Grand Central. Were you at The Oyster Bar? I was heading there and then decided to go to The Campbell Apartments instead.

  12. Anne, a friend of mine has been doing the day of silence for years (through a Buddhist meditation group) and she swears by it. She is one of the most centered women I know. I go many days in silence (with symphonic music), but I look forward to trying total silence and sticking to it. Thanks for sharing. Daryl

  13. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the power of silence.

    We live in an age (of iPods and cell phones) when people really need to hear this.

  14. I wonder if I could even do this! If I'm alone, I'm usually humming. Music is my default brain background (most often Bach's Jesu). I'm curious to see if I could stop the music. I've never wanted to, but it might be interesting to try.

    Thanks for the interview! The book looks great.

  15. Thanks for the comments and for the interest in the book. Anyone who is feeling seduced into wading into silence, I would love to know what your experience is like.