Interpreting crickets

I have trouble with silence.

Even when I’m alone, I have a tendency to talk to myself, or hum, or sing. When I’m with somebody else, it’s even worse. Silence makes me nervous. It’s a mystery I can’t solve, a dark, calm surface under which there may quite possibly be monsters. The longer it stretches out, the more certain I become that the silence itself is the monster, and it must be slain.

I’m not above mindless babble in such situations. Extreme circumstances call for extreme measures.

~~~~~~~~~~

Sadly, my discomfort with silence is not limited to actual conversations.

One morning, in the thin space between sound asleep and fully awake, a character introduced herself to me. She was compelling, shy, searching, and absolutely fully formed. With the remnants of sleep still clinging to me, I grabbed my journal and wrote down what she’d said. As her words poured out of me, a tiny story, a whole lonely life, took shape on the page. I wrote the first draft of my very short story “Invisible” in about half an hour. It was also the final draft.

At the time, I was writing regularly for an online (now defunct) magazine called Making Me. As soon as I finished writing, I typed it up and emailed it to my editor there. I was excited. I’ve always been more of a rewriter than a writer; this was the first (and only) time a story has come to me like that.

The editor, who never took more than a day to get back to me, was silent for almost a week. I went from elated to crushed. By the time he called me to say he loved the piece, I’d convinced myself it was shit. I beat myself up for sending it. Of course it wasn’t ready; it was a first draft! What was I thinking?

I worried that it would ruin my credibility with the editor. I wondered what had ever made me think I was a writer in the first place. Never mind the creative writing degree, the publications up until then, the fact that I’d already written several pieces for Making Me. In the absence of a response, I went into full existential crisis mode.

In the end, I was so relieved to hear he liked the piece, I hung up the phone and cried.

~~~~~~~~~~

There are other examples. Cheryl Strayed took more than a nanosecond to get back to me after I screwed up the courage to ask her for an interview on the day she outed herself as Dear Sugar. In the couple of days between my request and her (warm, reassuring) acceptance, I was convinced she was trying to find a nice way to tell me that she was a little too busy with Oprah and Vogue to talk to me, and maybe I should run along and find some t’s to cross and i’s to dot.

Met initially with silence, I assumed the worst about a pitch I made in January, the last book review I submitted, and the last invitation I extended for a Creativity Interview. The answer was yes , eventually, every time, but in the silence before the yes, I was sure I’d been judged and found wanting. My husband, Chad, with his annoying tendency toward sanity and reason, suggested each time that maybe the person I was waiting to hear from hadn’t seen my note yet. “Maybe they’re on vacation,” he said. “Maybe they’re swamped. Maybe they don’t check their email a hundred times a day.” (See what he did there?)

On some level I always know he’s right about this, but I’m never comforted.

I have trouble with silence.

~~~~~~~~~~

And it’s not just me.

In Justine Musk’s post, “dating + the(un)disturbed mind,” she tells the story of her beautiful friend’s panic when the man she’s just gone out with doesn’t call or text after their date.  She wonders if she wasn’t funny enough, charming enough, if she talked too much, or maybe too little. In essence, she tries to figure out what she did wrong. Justine (in a very Chad-like speech) tells her friend that anything could be happening with the guy, maybe his non-response has nothing to do with her. “Maybe there’s an on-again off-again relationship that just got switched on again. Maybe he’s going to Spain. Maybe he got trapped beneath something heavy.”

In Dani Shapiro’s post, “On Armor” she tells about a woman in the back row of one of her readings. Every time Dani looks at her, the woman literally – demonstrably – rolls her eyes. “A full eye-roll, heavenward.  Her body language said: I’m not buying it.  It said, I’m bored to tears, when will this be over?” Despite the rest of the audience’s obvious interest and rapt attention, Dani fixates on the eye-roller, and in the absence of words, wonders what she’s doing wrong.

Recently, I complained to someone I love about Facebook’s algorithm for deciding who of my friends’ updates I should see. “I want to see them all,” I said. “I’ll decide who to hide.” My friend surprised me by asking if I’d hidden her. “Of course not,” I said, but that’s when it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen any of her updates in weeks. In the absence of any comments from me, she’d worried that I’d hidden her.

~~~~~~~~~~

There are times, I’m sure, when silence is golden, but there are also times when it’s gray and murky and unnerving. I asked my husband how he does the magic that he does, always assuming the best – that people like him, or that they’re trapped under something heavy – and he said, “Why wouldn’t I assume the best? It’s just as easy as assuming the worst, and, really, it’s hardly ever the worst.”

True. Well, not the “just as easy” part, but he’s right about how rarely my worst-case scenarios come true.

So, I’m trying to assume the best, and I’m also trying to focus on action.

Steven Pressfield in The War of Art says, ““We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.” I think that’s right, and I think it applies not only to our work, but to our love lives, our friendships, our hobbies, our virtual communities. I think, as much as possible, we have to do what we do because we want to, because it makes us happy or healthy or fulfilled or prosperous, or – best reason of all  – because we simply can’t not do it.

I think if we focus on the stuff (the people, the things, the work, the art) that lights us up inside, we won’t worry so much about what the occasional silences mean. We’ll assume the best because that’s what people do when they’re all lit up inside.

That’s my theory, anyway. What do you think?

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In other news, I’m still doodling love, with a personal goal to let my doodles run more wild. If you’re doodling too (or will before next Thursday), send me your creations and I’ll post them with mine next week.

xo

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28 Responses to Interpreting crickets

  1. Casoly February 21, 2013 at 6:05 am #

    I love the title, I always think *crickets* when I’m waiting to hear from someone – and I don’t. I think this is an age old issue. On the one hand, we should be secure enough in our own skin to know we have done a good job, come up with a good idea, and not worry so much when we aren’t greeted right away with a parade or not to fall apart at a variation of “it’s me, not you.” Buuut… we are also social creatures, we live and adapt to our social connections, we grow and develop, change and sometimes even bloom, depending on the social feedback we get, and how our past social interactions have trained us to interpret new ones. Plus, we are all beautifully unique, regardless of social interactions, we respond in our own ways, at different times, differently. Wow, I’m good w stating the obvious this morning. :) what was your question again? *sips more coffee* In many ways I love silence, I crave it in fact. I’m a bit of a solitary person and yet… I love interacting w interesting people, working together to share ideas, debating something important or just having a good time listening to others. But I guess that’s not the kind of silence you’re talking about. When we risk a part of ourselves – throwing out what we think is the BEST idea ever or something we’ve written that we love, or ventured a virtual handshake saying “hi, I’m a nice person, can you please like me?” – we put ourselves in a vulnerable position – it’s that vulnerability that ties us in knots, but also one that provides us hope. Hope of professional or personal success, hope of a new friendship or love. Being in that vulnerable position of waiting on someone else to make a move – sigh. That can be a lonely place, a silence where anything can happen. I think in those instances, many of us, me included – react just as you do. That’s when our previous social interactions can be there to cheer us on, up or just comfort us.
    Gah. I’m babbling and never got to say exactly what it was I wanted to say. Coffee???
    Anyway – Love you J!!

    • j February 21, 2013 at 11:19 am #

      Actually, I don’t think you were stating the obvious at all. I have this terrible tendency to slip into either/or thinking, but you’re right. We aren’t solitary OR social, we’re solitary AND social. It’s okay to want the positive feedback… just not to obsess about it, and not to assume, in the (often temporary) absence of feedback, that we suck.

      I LOVE that you brought up vulnerability and that you framed it in such a positive light. I agree completely that it is my vulnerability that makes me nervous. That’s true even in casual conversation, when a silence makes me wonder if I’ve been misunderstood… or perfectly understood, but then disliked. It’s reassuring to be reminded that it’s my willingness to be vulnerable (which is why I’m in that uncomfortable position in the first place) is directly related to my ability to feel successful, loved, joyful, connected, intimate.

      I love when you babble! (And, seriously. You haven’t seen real babbling until you’ve seen me in the midst of an uncomfortable silence!)

      xoxo

  2. Tina Lee February 21, 2013 at 8:05 am #

    J, I agree with your friend, Casoly. There are more than one type of silence. I love driving with the radio off. There’s so much going on in my head that extra sound just becomes a nuisance. But with regard to silence from others, I just don’t worry about it. When I finish one thing and send it off for approval, I move on to the next thing. It doesn’t matter to me whether the previous thing is approved or not. What matters is that I keep sending stuff out there! Be blessed!

    • j February 21, 2013 at 11:22 am #

      I agree, and I’ve done that too – turned off the radio because it, coupled with the bouncy activity of my mind, felt like too much noise. I aspire to handle literary submissions, interview requests, and conversational lulls as gracefully as you do. You may be the embodiment of my little epiphany. :)

  3. Pam February 21, 2013 at 8:05 am #

    I think it’s good to remember (though sometimes difficult behind all the silence-filling story-spinning) that really very few things that happen in the universe are specific messages to us about our own likability and charm. (That’s what I’m telling myself, anyway.)

    • j February 21, 2013 at 11:24 am #

      This comment is why I adore you. And “silence-filling story-telling” is golden. It’s a superpower of mine, I’m trying to lose.

      As usual, you rock my comment thread, woman.

  4. Joy February 21, 2013 at 8:29 am #

    I *love* this…thank you!

    As a child, silence was a form of discipline. I learned not to like it *at all*. I filled the moment with anything, even things I didn’t like, because the idea of silence was worse then the feel of clutter and non-resonance.

    Sometime later in life, I began exploring and applying the practice of presence. Silence was a space in which I could experience infinite possibility when I was open to it. I learned the joy of comfortable silence, the refreshment of being silent. And I learned not to clutter the moment, but to leave ample space for it to unfold.

    The most beautiful gift I have given myself is the gift of silence. Days that I set aside my voice and “noise” and honor silence as I move through world. The most beautiful gift I experienced with another was a day of silence with friends, in their home (a planned day, a non-planned day might have had a different feel *grin*). In silence, I may find myself, or I may lose myself, and I trust in that fully. To say I really *did not like silence at all* is quite an understatement, to now cultivate and cherish it is quite a miracle, indeed!

    • j February 21, 2013 at 11:32 am #

      That’s so interesting, Joy. As I read your comment, I was wondering if I could trace my trouble with silence back to my childhood. Unlike in your case, the disciplinarian in my house was loud. Everyone in my house was loud… you had to be fast-thinking and faster-talking to get a word in edgewise… a truth that very well may lie at the heart of my issue! (I love when the comment thread gets therapeutic!)

      I’m intrigued by your days of silence and, even more, by your day-of-silence with friends. I was recently talking to one of my closest friends on the phone. We were talking about wanting to get away together for a weekend, tossing around ideas about what we might do – yoga retreat, hiking trip, spa getaway. When we realized how long we’d been on the phone, my friend said, “Anything but a silent retreat. That would probably kill us.”

      Maybe baby steps for me. One gift of silence at a time. Thank you for that!

  5. Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) February 21, 2013 at 10:38 am #

    The title of this post is absolutely gorgeous. Please please please write a poem to go with it! (If you don’t, I will!) I also thought “Invisible” was beautiful and so well-written. And “with his annoying tendency toward sanity and reason” made me laugh. My husband, too, has that tendency. :) You are so very talented, Ms. J.

    • j February 21, 2013 at 11:34 am #

      I’m beaming. Seriously. Thank you, Annie. High praise coming from someone whose writing I so admire.

      You write the poem. I’ll doodle it.

  6. Estrella Azul February 21, 2013 at 11:22 am #

    I have to agree, that tendency toward sanity and reason is quite annoying sometimes. How can I do that, too? Why is there no formula?

    On silences from other people though, I’m the same way, j. Most of the time I can just move on to the next thing. But then there are the *important* times, like some creative writing submitted, a question asked, when it all goes out the window and I’m climbing walls by the time people get back to me.
    Let me know if you can switch it around :) I’m trying to…

    • j February 21, 2013 at 11:35 am #

      Okay, I’ll report back. Stay tuned! <3

  7. Clare Flourish February 21, 2013 at 2:13 pm #

    When I transitioned male to female, I had warm friendships, love and acceptance, and sometimes some git in the street would say something like “It’s a bloke!” I learned, eventually, that my friend meant more and was worth more than some git in the street. I am rarely insulted like that now.

    • j February 21, 2013 at 6:24 pm #

      I can’t believe people sometimes. In your example, silence would be preferred!

      • Clare Flourish February 22, 2013 at 12:26 am #

        And- why should I want more validation? I have loads and loads of validation.

        • j February 22, 2013 at 8:34 am #

          True, and a better point. (See? Still working out this whole validation thing.) :)

  8. Nicci February 21, 2013 at 2:39 pm #

    I, too, love the title. Those crickets tend to be so damn loud, don’t they? I’ve learned to quell them by telling myself that the response will be beautiful and thoughtful. Sometimes I’m right, and it makes me smile, and then I put myself out there again, and I wait through more crickets; louder ones now b/c I’m like a puppy starving for attention, wading through that vicious cycle. But when I’m wrong I just want those crickets to turn into some sci-fi flesh-eating critters that can exact revenge upon silence…and then I snap back to reality and realize I do the same thing. Silence because I don’t know what to say. Silence because I’m afraid to say something stupid. Silence because I don’t have time respond. So I’m learning not to read too much into everything. Silence has its beautiful crevices and sometimes I prefer that over the duplicitous one-worded response. But silence still hurts and I hate that it has so much power. I do like that we keep putting ourselves out there, though…playing with crickets.

    Speaking of playing, I’m circling the doodling realm for you. Talk about crickets! I’ve several unfinished, unworthy doodles. I’ll send one your way, I hope. If anything, it’s challenging my creative process.

    Short-story sidebar: One summer long ago, on a strange & humid night, I caught my husband (boyfriend at the time) going outside with a pot of hot, steaming water to throw on some crickets. Why? Because they’re too loud, keeping him up, and just invading his life. :-) Me, being practical and trying not to laugh at him like a madwoman, wondered how the hell did he find those freaking crickets in the dark. To his credit they were quiet for about maybe two hours. And boy, did he relish in his superstardom! :-)

    • j February 21, 2013 at 6:35 pm #

      I love your “puppy starving for attention” analogy. I think there was some of that going on when I submitted “Invisible,” because the editor I was working with had always been SO complimentary and supportive and encouraging. I was feeling the love with him, thinking of him as a mentor… and then nothing.

      That said, I waste a lot of energy trying to decipher what silence means and totally discounting the very real possibility that it means nothing at all, or at least nothing about me. (As Pam so beautifully pointed out in her comment, sometimes it’s not about us.)

      Oh my gosh, Nicci, I’m so happy you’re doodling! I really hope you send me something. Try not to judge yourself. I need to write a post about Doodle Philosophy (The Zen of Doodling Yourself Silly). It’ll be about letting ourselves go and allowing ourselves to be delighted with what shows up on the page. Like when we were kids, before we learned to be so judgmental. I’m rooting for you. Think of it as a brave (beautiful, colorful, freeing) little leap.

      And REAL crickets? I love that sound. I associate it with summer nights… my favorite time of all.

      • Nicci February 21, 2013 at 9:27 pm #

        I definitely agree with Pam and others here that silence usually has nothing to do with us. I have to admit, though, that there are times when I take comfort in the silent response or the things that go unsaid. Sometimes silence buys us time; time for the right moment to hear what we really need to hear or say.

        Doodle is forthcoming. Just beware! Real crickets, I love too. I call them my summer-evening drawl.

        By the way, I LOVE “Invisible.” It is a quietly, loud piece. Fitting for your topic here. I see the silence. It’s a dance she does. I’m not sure if you meant it to be that way, but with a title like that how can you not? I especially like “You notice your heart when it breaks.” I keep thinking that to love is what makes us feel alive, but it’s really to love again, to recover from a heartbreak, to say “Shit, here I go again.” It’s a heartbroken, lonely girl who finally steps out onto the ledge to require attention, to converse, to fall apart loudly, and to be alive uninvisibly. I gush with like.

        • j February 21, 2013 at 10:58 pm #

          “I gush with like” is my new favorite phrase. <3

  9. Joanne Marie Firth February 21, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

    I did see what Chad did there. When I found today, that the little poem I shared last night, got very little response, I felt as though I had run naked through an auditorium of judgmental people. Who the hell am I to write something and expect the entire world, thumping at my door, offering publishing contracts. Well, that’s a little overly dramatic and what I’m trying to say, is that I LOVE THIS POST. It is so human and hits the nail exactly on the head. Silence is terrifying. An unreturned text, e-mail or any other communication to another human for that matter. They hate me. They are ignoring me. I don’t see anyone as being buried under something heavy. I instantly take is as a personal failure and hang my head. This post truly touched me j. You shared a very personal part of yourself. A vulnerability and fear. What you also did, was help with something I struggle with too, yet never was able to articulate the feeling that silence gave me. A big, shiny, glittery, red cape is being placed upon your shoulders right now. And on the cape, in bold letters….HERO.

    • j February 21, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

      Aw, thank you! *twirls in cape*

      I would say that we all do that – assume the worst – if I didn’t live with someone who clearly does not do it. Which means the rest of us can learn, right? I’m definitely going to attempt to retrain my busy little mind. No more silence-filling story-telling for me!

  10. Amanda Lewan February 21, 2013 at 3:53 pm #

    My boyfriend and I have a saying to “ignore the noise” when others aren’t supportive. But in this case, it would be “ignore the silence.” Just keep focusing on your work while others get back to you.

    Love that we read the same readers! I’m a big fan of Cheryl Strayed and Justine Musk’s writing. Great post.

    Best,
    Amanda

    • j February 21, 2013 at 10:49 pm #

      I love that too; we both have excellent taste.

      For some reason “ignore the noise” makes me think of my favorite professor in college. I fell apart after my first rejection and he gave me a big, great speech about how rejections mean that you’re in the game. Mostly I remember at the end of the speech when he said, “Fuck the naysayers.” It’s a more bombastic version of “ignore the noise.”

      I think you’re exactly right. Focus on the work… because I can’t NOT do it.

  11. Nancy February 21, 2013 at 5:05 pm #

    Hey lovely….

    It’s lack of feedback, not really silence, no?

    I think this is a very human tendency. When we’re dying to know what someone is thinking, it’s very easy to spin the lack of response into our being unworthy (unloved, unliked, whatever fits) rather than to think that the person isn’t ready to provide feedback yet. Not that they are struggling over giving the feedback, but perhaps they had an accident, are just swamped, etc.

    Crickets are loud and noisy when all is good — it’s the right temperature and there are no predators stalking them. They only get quiet when there is a problem. That fact does not mean that lack of response from someone means all is not well. That analogy has to be tossed out the window!

    So, when do we see cricket doodle? Oh, maybe I *have* to draw one for you! xo

    • j February 21, 2013 at 10:52 pm #

      It’s both – lack of feedback and silence, but the silence that happens in the midst of a lack of feedback is the worst, I guess.

      Actually, I did try to doodle a cricket for this post, but it looked… like a cricket! I wanted something cuter. And YES. Doodle me one, please! (You can put a heart in the picture somewhere and call it a love doodle!)

  12. David Cohen February 21, 2013 at 8:55 pm #

    All I’ve got to say is you can’t imagine how many times I’ve posted a doodle, especially one where I’ve tried something new or feels a bit different somehow, and if I don’t see a ‘like’ or a comment I start to panic and assume that the whole world has had their fill of my art, decided I was crazy, and are in the process of blocking my posts. I don’t usually cry when I do get that ‘like’, but I feel myself finally breathe – sometimes I happy dance.

    • j February 21, 2013 at 10:56 pm #

      I’m totally familiar with the moment of total body exhale! And happy dances, for that matter. It’s comforting to hear that other people go through it too. There’s hardly anything better than feeling understood. (I’ve been exhaling every time someone adds to the comment thread!)

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