Silent Writing

One of the most powerful writing experiences I ever had took place almost ten years ago at a retreat called The Self as the Source of the Story. The teacher was a wonderful woman, Christina Baldwin, who had taught a workshop that I attended at a medical conference. The topic was not writing, but I had enjoyed learning from her and was thrilled to find out that she hosted a writing retreat every year.

Back then, I was slowly rediscovering my passion to write but I was still very self-conscious and unsure of myself.

The pace of life at the retreat was so different than my daily life–it was heaven. For a week this is what I and my fellow writers did: Get up and write, then attend a lecture on writing. Have lunch, then time to write again with another writing lecture in the late afternoon, then dinner and more time to write. I felt like I had come home to a part of myself I’d been missing for a long, long time.

Then we entered silence. We all agreed to remain silent for 36 hours. The time of silence began after dinner one evening, and continued throughout the next day, ending on the morning of the following day. During that time we ate together, spent time together, or at least near each other, and wrote together, all in total silence.

At the end of that day and half, we met outside to end our silence. We ate breakfast together, and then we met in circle to share something that we had written. Most people shared what they had written while in silence, but not all.

I wrote a poem.

Other than one really fun, epic poem about a food fight that I helped my brother write when we were both in high school, I had never written a poem.

I wrote that poem from a deep part of myself that I had never previously acknowledged. I wrote it during the long day of silence, a day in which I also ran in the woods and walked on the beach. The voice in the poem was in my head and then the pen was in my hand and the words just came. I wrote and revised and, when it felt complete, I just stopped. I remained in silence.

The next day as I read my poem to the group, I was very scared. I had never written anything as honest as that poem and I was literally shaking as I attempted to read it aloud. I made it through the poem and my fellow retreat participants were positive and supportive.

The other participants read their work and I was moved and amazed at the quality of the writing and, most striking, by the level of emotion that the work called out of each writer (and, as a result, out of us, the audience.) I don’t know if it was because of the silence, but every participant seemed to have accessed a part of themselves that was deeper and more authentic than usual.

It makes me want to do it again.

My life is not currently set up to allow me to go on a week-long writing retreat, though Christina is still hosting them (see her website for more information), but I am determined to find ways to incorporate silence into my writing life.

Recently, I found out about an online group called The Silent Writer’s Collective. They meet via Twitter and Facebook every Tuesday and write in silence for an hour. I didn’t think it could possibly be as powerful as my time in silence on the writing retreat, but I thought I’d try it.

Here’s what happened: I got a lot done.

Yay for silence!

Have you experienced writing in silence? How did it work for you? 

Diane MacKinnon, MD, is a family physician, mother, Master Certified Life Coach and writer. She blogs for her life coaching business, Healing Choices. She is currently rewriting a novel she wrote for NaNo 2008, and putting in her “10,000 hours” to (try to) master the craft of writing.

Check out her life coaching blog here.

27 thoughts on “Silent Writing

  1. I live alone. Used to be a professional man, now I have a house overlooking the Indian Ocean, I don’t like radio or TV. I live in, and for, silence. I think it may be different for other writers, but silence is the place where stories grow. Mine may not win international fame, but they are mine. Born in silence. Where I live.

    • Hi Amos,
      I agree, silence is very important. I used to listen to the radio when I was puttering around the house, but now I find it distracting. I turn it on when there is something I want to hear, but otherwise I use the silence to think my thoughts and (perhaps!) come up with another idea for a piece of writing.

      Your home overlooking the Indian Ocean sounds lovely. Enjoy!


  2. I had a similar experience in silence at a writing workshop I took some years back. We also shared our work and like you I was very frightened to read. I did though. And something in me turned on. I recently had a couple of my poems published in a small literary journal, [and I do not consider myself to be a poet]. Reading them at the release party was one of the most frightening things I have ever done! Although I hope to continue to publish in journals, and am also writing my memoirs, I love the bit of distance from audience that blogging allows. I was speaking to a friend the other night about how amazed I am at the changes in me over the last 10 years, since I began to write on a nearly daily basis. From a mute child and young woman who believed herself to be an idiot, I am becoming a woman who boldly states her thoughts and feelings, and then hits Publish, believing that what I contribute to the world is of great value. Good luck as you continue your writing quest!

  3. I used to do this too, at a beach house, every summer. I even took the battery out of the clock, i would write for days all alone and it was marvellous.. just marvellous.. c

    • Wow, ceciliag,
      That sounds like heaven! I’m thinking of ways to incorporate silence into my life, and writing near the ocean is at the top of my list.

      Thanks for sharing.


    • Hey Chad,
      I used to be able to listen to music while writing, but now I find it takes too much energy to block out the “noise” and concentrate, so I just turn it off. Then I listen when I can sing along and really enjoy the music!

      Happy Writing!


  4. I have been doing silent meditation and writing retreats with Natalie Goldberg for twelve years. We gather, greet each other, can talk through the first night, Silence begins at breakfast. In class, we follow a schedule of sitting meditation, walking meditation and writing practice. During our free time we can sit, walk, write, nap or read good books. I am always refreshed by these retreats and often my writing takes surprising turns. Natalie has a book coming out in 2013 that will teach others how to lead these retreats.

  5. Diane, I had similar experiences in my 18 month of training in the the Listening Hearts Discernment Method, headquartered out of Baltimore,MD. You can find their winter newsletter and other information about them on the web just by googling “Listening Hearts Discernment.” We performed many, many, MANY silent writing, painting, walking, dancing, yoga-ing, etc. hours during those 18 months. We met in evenings, once a month for weekends. This changed my life in so many ways. I am so pleased to find out about the Tuesday silent writing times onine. Bless you, dear lady.

    • Hi granbee,
      Thanks for the information. I’ll definitely check it out. While the Tuesday silent writing times fit my lifestyle right now, it won’t be too long before I can consider taking longer periods of time to retreat into silence.

      Bless you, too!


  6. I remember being up late one evening just writing away in my computer journal, and my husband was asleep, the cats were all asleep, and the house was completely quiet. It was as if I were completely alone as I live in a rural area with little late night traffic like you would find in a city. I had no radio, internet or otherwise, turned on. I was just sitting in the silence writing, and the most extraordinary thing happened. What I had been writing sort of “morphed” into a graphic recounting of an incident that happened to me when I was a teenager. I had never really spoken or written about the incident itself or the fallout that came after. But, that evening, I think due to the calmness of the noise-free environment and the emotional calmness it created, it all came out from the very depths of my heart. It was an interesting experience, but afterwards, I felt content as if I had purged a demon. I do not know if that makes sense or not, but I think the silence calmed me enough that I felt safe to write what I did..

    • Hi songofthesirens,
      I think the experience you describe is similar to what I experienced in that time of silence. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It sounds like it was a powerful experience and that’s how I felt, too. Makes me want to retreat back into silence again–but I think it has to be in a time and place that I feel really safe, as you did.


      • It really was an odd experience. I was writing and the house and world were so quiet that it seemed as if only I existed in this world. I actually flashed back to when I would be in my old apartment (before marriage and a house), by myself, and just free form/thought writing. Then, I would remind myself where I was….. so apparently I associate my old apartment and quiet with safety. But, yes, in order to have a writing experience so profound that it fundamentally changes your view of your life and your world, it has to be quiet and safe.

        I love to write (when I am awake) really late at night when it seems the world has gone to bed. I forget time and place when I write in the wee hours of the morning. And for some reason, the writing is less inhibited? Who knows? Thank you for your comment. it is always nice to hear from people who actually know where you are coming from.

        Best wishes, Jennifer

    • I always try to write in the silent parts of my life because I find it soothing, and I can focus better, but you are right this was definitely a very unique and profound experience. It was just this side of cathartic. I have been writing my life since I was 12, and my father gave me my first journal. Then, I used to write to Classical music. I think I currently have about 10 active hand written journals, and 4 blogs?

      I would definitely encourage you to try writing in the silent parts and times in you day. You never know what may come out 🙂

  7. Funny, isn’t it, but we forget that silence is the space between words, and nothing would make any sense at all without it. It’s much more than that though – I honestly don’t know what I would do without whole periods of silence, and not just silence either, I mean whole periods of time to let go of words altogether and find something very different. Not at all easy to do! It’s why meditation is such a powerfully creative thing.

    Thank you so much for this.

  8. Pingback: The Not Such Solitary Life of a Writer « creativityorcrazy

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