Tillie Olsen and Silences: Writer’s Block

Tillie Olsen wrote Silences which describes the periods during which the creator becomes incapable of creating. For a painter, it is a time of blank, white canvases. Writers might call this Writer’s Block. In my case, the silences that Olsen describes are normally caused by depression or by becoming too busy to hear myself think or by an inner resistance to digging deeper. Here is an excerpt from Olsen’s book Silences:

“Literary history and the present are dark with silences: … some the ceasing to publish after one work appears; some the never coming to book form at all. What is it that happens with the creator, to the creative process, in that time? What are creation’s needs for full functioning? …myself so nearly remaining mute and having to let writing die over and over again in me. These are not natural silences–what Keats called agonie ennuyeuse (the tedious agony)–that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation. The silences I speak of here are unnatural: the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot. In the old, the obvious parallels: when the seed strikes stone; the soil will not sustain; the spring is false; the time is drought or blight or infestation; the frost comes premature. The great in achievement have known such silences–Thomas Hardy, Melville, Rimbaud, Gerard Manley Hopkins. They tell us little as to why or how the creative working atrophied and died in them–if ever it did. Kin to these years-long silences are the hidden silences; work aborted, deferred, denied–hidden by the work which does come to fruition. Hopkins rightfully belongs here; almost certainly William Blake; Jane Austen, Olive Schreiner….”– Tillie Olsen, Silences, 1962

At times, my own silences are excruciating. At times, I can literally feel an idea’s struggle to move from my heart to my mind where I can develop it. When that happens, I often sense a physical lump in my throat. More often, my silences are a period of overall numbing. I have often described myself in that state as being a type of Rip Van Winkle–a person who has fallen into a long and deep sleep which becomes a nearly catatonic state. Silence strikes me in several ways, but invariably, I feel that each silence has become my last silence–the one from which I will not awaken. Obviously, I am writing this piece now, and silence has been broken, but not completely. I am not writing another picture book–that would require me to dig deeper than I am digging to write this piece.

Winter is often a debilitating time of silence for me. By mid-winter, I succumb to the weather, to the grayness, and to the cold. Like a bear, I crawl into a type of sleep state, which is a period when I do little more than exist. When spring arrives, I force myself back to work in my garden, which becomes a healer for me.

This past spring and summer, I worked in my garden 6 to 10 hours every day. There was no time or energy to write after those laborious days. During the entire spring and summer, I repeatedly swore that as soon as the cool weather returned, I would immerse myself in writing again, but soon, the winter arrives–another time of frozen silence.

In summary, Creative Silences are real. They are brutally debilitating, and yet, it is possible to push through them. I feel myself pushing through a silence now.