The drama of quiet in writing


In true poetic form, Safrean Silke Heiss reminds us why we need to listen, appreciate and embrace the silence when we write.

As with music, language comes out of silence. Into the unstructured openness of silence, animals, and we with them, give sounds – available to them as to us through our lungs, larynxes, throats, diaphragms, tongues, teeth and gums. Our ancestors shared these sounds and the sharing built the joys and freights of meaning. The ancestral hands found and shaped tools to scratch and mark these shared sounds into and onto wood and stone; later on skins, fabrics, papyrus, paper. Again, the meanings those marks were loaded with lay in the fact that they were shared.

Out of the multitude of alphabets sprung thence, charms and curses, songs and poems, myths, holy texts, historical records, logs, journals and eventually fiction and news evolved as physically present troves of meaning.

In all this colourful volubility stamped about the earth, what happened to the quiet that is its canvas? The pulse of flesh at the heart of language?

A heart muscle is obliged to contract and release in order not to fail; lungs breathe in and out; by the same natural law, speech must pause not merely for breath, but, indeed, for thought.

I am not versed in markers of quiet in alphabets other than the Roman one, so I will focus on that.

The punctuation markers we have available to us offer a lovely lexicography of quiet any writer does well to study and apply, in order to harness his or her reader’s attention and understanding.

The indispensable condition for building a story, a feeling, an argument by means of words is the openness of silence. Silence is the home of conscious thought entwined with feeling entwined with intuition – a being-at-oneness that facilitates awareness. 

Many contemporary poets make use of no other pause markers than the line or stanza break; many contemporary businesspeople, clerks, secretaries, and so on, make use of neither capitals nor commas; at times, not even full stops get a look-in. Punctuation-free text can, and often does, work to communicate its intentions. I would not like to make a dogma out of punctuation.

However, punctuation is there as an enriching option for the writer. The exciting fact of being able to speak, and then to write down our – or another’s – speaking, can lead to over-drive (as Rap purposely intends) without a proper harness for thought, which resides, as I have said, in silence: for the rhythm of all life operates through contraries.

Whether you are writing a blog or reporting on a war, or analysing the stock market, whether you are constructing a biography, or describing a garden for a magazine, or appealing for a traffic fine to be waived, you can show your control over the rhythms of your meaning by means of appropriate punctuation marks.

To be that self-reflective is actually pleasurable. Locate your thoughts and breathing pauses and mark them: you can get to know yourself better that way. A full stop, for example, might in a face-to-face situation stand in for a look. A comma might be shown as a quick touch on the other person’s shoulder or hand. An exclamation mark sees raised eyebrows over widened eyes, or perhaps a frown; a semi-colon a turn of the head, perhaps, with the speaker – you! – a-ponder … And so on: would you agree?

… I am playing here a little, of course – but in the colon in the previous sentence (beginning with “And”) I have imagined both my eyes looking straight into the eyes of my reader. While the dash in the sentence preceding the present one is a hand gesture, pointing to the sentence containing the colon.

Your written language is as alive as you are in the attentions you pay to your meanings shared into the given matrix.

If you give silence its due by faithfully marking it in its livingness (the rules provide hold, but are not dogma) you will, moreover, find that suddenly you have more time. Not likely? Try it.

About the author

Silke Heiss is a published poet who has earned her living as a freelancer creating educational materials and editing a variety of texts for close on three decades. Occasionally she depends on her art (ceramics and intaglio) to supplement her income. She lives and works in Hogsback, in the Amathola Mountains of the Eastern Cape, where she gives writing workshops and virtual mentoring. She is preparing her first solo book of poems for publication. To learn more about Silke, please visit her website, sign up to her newsletter and connect with her on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.


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