Silence or Surround-Sound

--Guest Post by Carolyn Rose

How do you do your best work? While tapping your toes to the Motown beat? Howling along with Howlin’ Wolf? Listening to the slosh of the washer and the whisk of the dryer? Monitoring the kids’ conversations? Talking back to Talk Radio or keeping an ear cocked for that recipe for cheese and cantaloupe soufflé “coming up next” on a TV interview show?

Or do you require silence to concentrate?

I used to think I did.

In fact, I insisted on my own office space, a floor above my husband’s and at the opposite end of the house. Mike, who is the co-author of our cozy mystery series set in the fictional Oregon coast town of Devil’s Harbor, likes music, lots of it. His office shelves hold at least 300 CDs and he’s got a TV, a piano, and a pool table in his space.

After a long career on the air at radio stations in three states, he’s lost a lot of his high-end hearing, so he tends to crank the dials up. The Spinal Tap musicians who had amps that went up to 11 have nothing on him. When noise leaked up the stairs—as it did almost daily—I’d snatch up the intercom and carp at him to keep it down.

The more I became obsessed with my need for silence in order to write, the more I blamed everything and everyone else for my lack of progress.

And then one day, frustrated because my latest novel was not only going nowhere but not even making good time in the process, I sat and listened, really listened.
And I found out that silence—at least in my office—is anything but silent.

First, I heard the breathy hum of the computer and the clicking of the keys beneath my fingers. I heard myself swallow. I heard my stomach rumble and a crackling sound in my sinuses as I drew in air.

A jet flew over, the roof creaked as the sun warmed it, and outside the window a bird skittered along the patio roof. A neighbor cranked up his lawnmower and another revved the engine of his truck. Someone trundled a garbage bucket down to the street. A dog barked and a woman called for it to come. A squirrel jumped from branch to branch in the pear tree. A jay complained that I hadn’t filled the feeder.
After a few minutes, I tuned out those noises and listened more intently to the words spoken inside my head by my characters and, beyond that, the sounds created inside my mind by my imagination—the cheese puffs calling out from the fresh bag “hidden” in the closet above the refrigerator, the chocolate pudding easing past its expiration date, the last cranberry muffin shivering in a plastic bag at the back of
the freezer.

Suddenly, I was awash in a sea of sound. Waves of sound rose higher. An undertow of noise pulled me down.

I clamped my hands over my ears, but the surf sucked me under. I heard skin rub on skin, my tongue rasping against my teeth. I heard the thud-thud-thud of my heart pumping, the suck of air in my lungs.

These tiny sounds grew louder, reverberated, resonated, resounded.

I leaped up, turned on the TV, then dug an ancient boom box from the closet, slapped a Rolling Stones CD into the slot, and began singing along with Mick and the guys.
In a few minutes, I’d drowned out the sound of what I’d thought was silence.
In a few more minutes my fingers were tapping out the rhythm of “Start Me Up.” Words stutter-stepped onto my computer screen. I filled a page. I filled another.

A figure loomed in the doorway and my husband raised an eyebrow.

“Silence,” I shouted over the music, “is vastly overrated.”

Carolyn's Bio:

Carolyn J. Rose grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She teaches novel-writing in Vancouver, Washington, and founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers. Her hobbies are reading, gardening, and not cooking.

She is the author of Hemlock Lake, Consulted to Death, Driven to Death, and Dated to Death, and the co-author of Sometimes a Great Commotion, The Big Grabowski, The Hard Karma Shuffle, The Crushed Velvet Miasma, and The Hermit of Humbug Mountain.

Visit her virtual home at


Carolyn J. Rose said…
I can't believe Marilyn posted this at 3:47 a.m. I'm honored to be her guest and hope to hear lots of other thoughts on this topic.
Hi, Carolyn, I'm honored to have you as my guest again. This is a terrific post.

Anonymous said…
"the chocolate pudding easing past its expiration date" - LOVE IT! I vacillate between craving silence which winds up including my dog snoring, the UPS guy ringing the front bell and the death rattle of our forty year old furnace or giving into the need for noise and cranking Bruce Springsteen at top volume. Thanks Carolyn for letting me know I'm not alone! Susan :)
Mike Nettleton said…
What's interesting is that Carolyn and I have virtually flip-flopped on our attitudes toward noise and writing. I rarely play music anymore when I work (too rarely, but in retirement I'm determined to get onto a disciplined schedule). The CD player's little laser light winked out and I haven't replaced it. The television hasn't been on in more than 3 years. The pool table's still a distraction though.
M.M. Gornell said…
Neat blog! Nice to meet you, Carolyn.

Carolyn J. Rose said…
Hi back at you, Madeline. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Unfortunately, I've got to head to work and I'll be off-line for a bit, but keep those comments coming and I'll respond when I return.
I love your post about sound and its effect on us as writers. There is something soothing about the normal, going-about-their business sounds made by the people in our lives that don't bother this mystery writer. Loud music, however, is not something I tolerate--and my tolerance level decreases the closer I get to Medicare kicking in.
I like to work very early in the morning and zone out all sound.
I need total concentration.
I've had a very similar experience, Carolyn. I always write (or do any detailed work) in silence. However when my daughter became sick a few years ago and had to move back home ~ and into my living room next to the TV - and my computer, I was hard into edits. Which to me are as intense as the original writing.

At first I insisted she not turn the TV on while I was working. Fortunately she had to go out for treatments three days a week first thing in the morning when I tend to do my work. The other two mornings she would disappear.

Then she began treatments at home and was here 24/7. I almost never turn the TV on but it is her escape and I simply decided to suck it up for her and work around the noise. I discovered very quickly that I could tune out noise after all and in fact when she was away the other day it felt far too quiet in here and I found myself turning on the music channels. When she got home she said "What's that noise?"

I laughed, she smiled. We hugged.
David said…
Your ability to wring humor out of ordinary situations is apparently surpassed by your ability to detect sounds in ordinarily silent transactions. Personally, I like music or some easily ignored sounds to keep the front channels of my brain busy so that the deeper zones can do their work when I write. However, once I get into writing I am oblivious to the point that a bomb could go off and I wouldn’t know it unless the blast took out my computer. TV is the only device that I can absolutely not have on when I write. Even the best efforts of the cable company through beaming endlessly rebroadcasted productions that were an affront to the idea of entertainment the first time they appeared have not been sufficient to wean me of my addiction. So I just shut it off and write elsewhere.
Linda Leszczuk said…
Loved your post. I need some white noise to keep myself from listening for sounds. Music works for me but no lyrics. I tend to sing along and then I can't hear my characters.
Mike Nettleton said…
Since we talked about the effect of music on the writing process, do any of you incorporate music into your fiction. When we were writing "The Crushed Velvet Miasma" a mystery centering on the reunion of a seventies band that had gone through an acrimonius break-up, I played lots of music from that era as I wrote. Since part of the book used invinted lyrics to some of their songs, it seemed to act as inspiration.
nsfarina2 said…
Take a little trip to Hemlock Lake for some fine silence!

Ah... remember the days before electronics. Right now, I hear the hum of my laptop, the tapping and release of the keys, the washing machine, the dryer, the television, the clock's tick. The jingle of the dog's tags seems unnatural.
Carolyn J. Rose said…
Wow - it's great to hear so many perspectives on this and to find out how you all have learned change what you can and cope with what you can't. I think the bottom line is that if we need to write, then we find a way to cut through (or cut out) the clutter and get to it.
Write on!

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