The Silence of Choices: A few lessons from Tillie Olsen

Silence is a real fear for writers. Not silence as in the absence of sound, rather silence as an inability to hear what the imagination wants to bring into the world. For whatever reason, writers are egoists and need to leave imprints of thoughts and stories for people to find. Somehow there’s an instinctive sense for most of us that at least a smidgeon of what we are trying to provide readers is unique, at least partially interesting, and would never have come into the world had we not forced the issue.

Imaginations are funny things. When they work properly life has meaning and literally everything and anything is possible. It’s a great feeling to be in flow with words and filled with the life force one feels being creative with versions of new meaning. But when imaginations are spent, or for whatever reason the gears of thought can’t turn, it only takes a few days of silence and a sense of emptiness before we either feel pointless and inconsequential or, worse, forget that wonderful feeling of surprise and connectedness that is the creative mind at work.

I read about renegade writer Tillie Olsen’s battle to find time to work in a long essay by A.O. Scott in the NYTimes Book Review, March 28, 2021. Scott’s essay is part of “The Americans: Writers Who Show Us Who We Are” series. “Tillie Olsen Captured the Toll of Women’s Labor — on Their Lives and Art” is the 4th in the collection. Tillie Olsen is an unheralded early feminist writer who cut her early teeth on fiction during the Great Depression. No matter how pioneering she was, Tillie didn’t have the chance to write much at all in her formative adult years. She was too busy raising a family, working, and organizing American workers (along, I presume, with her husband Jack, a printer and union organizer). Scott writes: “Olsen’s career is built on sifting and weighing the forces that conspire to prevent writing from happening.”

The beginning of his essay notes that Olsen’s career as an artist was defined first by a singular collection of a few stories along with a novella in Tell Me a Riddle. To Scott’s mind, that single book was enough to make her notable and worthy of consideration, although Olsen did indeed publish a good deal more — both literary and journalistic work. In particular, Scott points to the first story in her collection that included Riddle, “I Stand Here Ironing,” which showed up in Best American Short Stories of 1957.

In the end, Olsen had a fairly extended life as a writer of note, but she battled through quite a lot to get there. According to Scott, some of her pieces bring up the struggle of pushing through exhaustion and alienation, putting up with feeling marginalized, living with being unheard, and wondering if you have a gift at all or talent, or are just kidding yourself. In her non-fiction book, Silences, published when she was in her mid-60s, she wrote:

Literary history and the present are dark with silences … I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having to let writing die over and over again in me … the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot.

Tillie Olsen

Perhaps as a male in America some may feel I don’t have the right to wax poetic about my own desire to write and overcome that “unnatural thwarting.” I don’t know about that, though. My “best years” were focused on working for money as a consultant, planner, and analyst. I was a stay-at-home dad while I did all of that consulting, raising three boys, trying to be a good husband, pushing through being tired all the time, defeated by my own limitations, sometimes feeling dissatisfied with much of my professional life because I didn’t have time to be creative. You drink a lot of alcohol when you feel unnaturally thwarted. And yet, of course, the real world does not cease. It always wants more noise and motion, and seems to need its myriad twisted versions of pornography on every level of human existence all the time.

I lost so many good ideas and so much psychological energy for roughly thirty years. There were moments, of course (usually stolen), where I managed to record extended attempts at stories and essays. I even concocted several draft novel manuscripts. You learn early on that any good idea, ones with click and heart, tend to vaporize from memory within minutes if you don’t write them down.

Norman Mailer pointed out somewhere that the biggest problem for older writers is keeping everything straight through an extended working process. Our memories change over time and cognition shifts. I translate Mailer’s point about age into a question of time and timing. Regardless of one’s age, an essay might take a week. A short story might require a few weeks coupled with a year or two of edits and tinkering. And a novel, if it’s worth much, will take several years (to a decade or more) from conception to research to drafting to revisions, and new parts, then cuts and cuts and more cuts, and whittling, etc. So, the older we get the more important it is to understand the need to use time for what it is and not for what we wish it could have been.

Memory, of course, is linked to time. The more time there is to focus, the more likely it is you can carry out all the memory work that needs to be linked up and mapped in order to make a creative project work.

I very much appreciate Scott’s and Olsen’s insights, then, about time and silence and missed opportunities because of life choices and necessities. It’s true that silence and the battle to find enough extended moments to write can be stultifying and frustrating, but we also write best out of that wonderful endless need for what we don’t have.

Mailer may be correct about the problems of memory, but I would say that actual wisdom (which I’m not sure Mailer ever truly had) and competence (which he most certainly did have!) can only be arrived at after years of missing the mark, seeking silence and emptiness where we can find them.

For what it’s worth, I’ve always found it amazing that writers get credit for early work in their 20s and 30s but that critics tend often to beat up their later projects. There has to be a sweet spot for some writers where the flammability of energy and talent connect up with skill and life wisdom itself. How we arrive at that sweet spot may well have nothing to do with what critics and readers alike think of our work but whether we’ve found enough quiet and space and whatever small bit of time left in this world to unlock pieces of what we sense are essential for others to find.

In the end, I wonder what Tillie Olsen really thought about the fullness of life and what matters most. I can’t say I would trade any of the time I focused on my sons. I also took care of my mother for ten years in the middle of all that until she died. All the while I was learning about real love and how difficult it is to maintain in the face of all the shit that comes in through the back door every day.

I write now every day, and get a chance at however much silence I want. I’m also better at love and still feel deeply romantic towards my wife. I’m pretty sure she likes the older version of me more now than the younger, firmer, better looking one thirty plus years ago. My work is never secondary, but it’s informed by all those lessons and the success of not having fucked up other people’s lives like so many other adults seem to do. So, I guess in that regard, it’s all part of the process. God help writers who don’t have to fight through the noise and problems of being human.

One thought on “The Silence of Choices: A few lessons from Tillie Olsen

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  1. Really interesting stuff I never thought about before in this way. I kind of always vaguely imagined that “getting older” would only help to enhance whatever I or other writers had to offer.
    But, man, applause for writers in your 20s and 30s, then coming down hard as they get older?
    Harsh!
    And, yeah, I never took into account, until it started happening to me, how exhausted I might get,
    how draining full-time work might be at 50 compared to 35, and how the muse begins to die a little bit more every day, and every day that one tries to wrangle it back and each day that it doesn’t work, resentment and frustration and a sense of loss in general continues to grow and compound.
    I can’t wait until writing is the priority instead of shoved onto a back shelf.
    Then I’ll REALLY find out if I’ve got what it takes or I don’t.

    Liked by 1 person

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