From the Archive — From the May 2015 issue

Ways of Being Silent

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Literary history and the present are dark with silences: the years-long silences of acknowledged greats; the ceasing to publish after one work appears; the hidden silences; the never coming to book form at all.

What is it that happens with the creator, to the creative process in those times? What are creation’s needs for full functioning? Without intention of or pretension to literary scholarship, I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having let writing die over and over again in me.

Melville’s stages to his thirty-year prose silence are clearest. The presage is in his famous letter to Hawthorne, as he had to hurry Moby Dick to an end:

I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, that can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, it will not pay. Yet altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash.

To have to try final hash; to have one’s work met by “drear ignoring”; to be damned by dollars into a Customs House job; to have only occasional weary evenings and Sundays left for writing — is it not understandable why Melville began to burn work, then refused to write it, “immolating” it, “sealing in a fate subdued”? Instead he turned to sporadic poetry, manageable in a time sense, “to nurse through night the ethereal spark” where once had been “flame on flame.” A thirty-year night. He was nearly seventy before he could quit the customs dock and again have full time for writing, start back to prose. “Age, dull tranquilizer” and devastation of “arid years that filed before” to work through before he could restore the creative process. Three years of tryings before he felt capable of beginning Billy Budd (the kernel waiting half a century); three years more, the slow, painful, never satisfied writing and rewriting of it.

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