Silence and Space


Space Series

The incomparable (and extremely gracious) Sandra Nickel, another friend from VCFA, returns to the blog with the fifth installment of the Space Series. (The first post in the series can be found here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.) Feel free to check out her awesome blog. Sandra is currently researching her next novel and in her spare time attempting to unlock her inner poet with Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled.


I was in Morocco’s Draa Valley, approaching the Sahara, when I received L. Marie’s invitation to write on the theme of space. Thinking of her, I opened my mind to ideas and watched as our guide drove us past the last village and into the world’s largest desert. Scrub turned to rocks, rocks to rubble. And then, sand—fine and bleached. And sky—flawlessly azure, with not even a wisp of white intruding.


Photo of the Sahara by Olivia Schlaepfer

This was expanse as we rarely see it. The world without interruption. The sort of openness that brings on thoughts of creativity at its most fundamental. After all, the genesis of all creation, no matter who tells the story, is the void. The thing that comes before and in between. Space, in other words.

I watched this expanse from my window and was soon thinking of a smaller kind of creation. Mine.

When I was just starting to write, a good friend, who is also a creative being—a singer and songwriter—took my agenda and marked out an entire month’s worth of mornings and afternoons. She said: Even if you don’t look like you are working, even if you don’t think you are working, you are. You need to be bored before you can create. By bored, I believe she meant quiet, without interruption, in the void.


Writers often talk about feeding the muse, creative dates, setting aside an entire month to speed write a novel. But equally important is the inspiration of space and silence. How would we solve our problems without the quiet of a walk or the solitude of a run? Without the pause between first draft and revision? Silence and space are often keys to creativity.

After I arrived in the Sahara, and my family and I trekked on camels and struggled to the top of the highest dune, I awoke in the night. As the others slept in their tents, I padded through the cold, dry sand, away from the camp, to take in the immense firmament that was above. I stood, ready to be awed, but it wasn’t the magnificence of the night sky that struck me, although the sky was magnificent. What awed me was the quiet. No stir of the camels, no airplane far in the sky, no wind. Silence.

Silence as I have never heard it.

483px-Emily_Dickinson_daguerreotypeI listened, and this time I thought of Emily Dickinson and her “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”—and how the quiet of space is needed for slant. To form the gorgeous metaphor, to set up the objective correlative, to deepen and curl meaning around itself. I gazed again at the sky; I listened again to the Sahara.

When I arrived in Marrakech and visited its souk, I stepped into the opposite of silence and space. Every inch is crowded and full of potential missteps. Wanting to buy something only makes it worse. Intense negotiations begin. Taunts and happy insults are thrown fast furious, until—and this is the important part—the owner, at least the person you thought was the owner, turns to a man in the corner. It is this man, the one who has silently watched everything, who is judged to have enough distance (read: space) to make the final decision.

As an analogy to writing, I love this. The writer spies an attractive idea and haggles with the muse. The exchange is heated and intense, and not always a lot of fun, although the writer may pretend to the outside world that it is. When the negotiations draw to a close, the muse turns to a person in the corner. It takes a bit of time to recognize just who that person is—perhaps two weeks, perhaps a month—but, then, it all becomes clear. It is the writer herself, now with enough distance, to make the decision of whether the creative exchange can come to an end, or another round is needed.

And so, you see, Morocco repeatedly told of the importance of silence and space. Absolutely join in the chaos of the souk and the rush to write a novel in 30 days. But remember: whether beginning, or searching out the slant, or revising to the end, the quiet and void will always be essential to creativity.


Emily Dickinson and Marrakech photos from Wikipedia. Book cover from Goodreads. Calendar from

35 thoughts on “Silence and Space

  1. When my life gets busy and there’s no room for silence, my creativity definitely drops as my thought become jumbled. “Silence and space are often keys to creativity.” You hit the nail on the head with that line, Sandra!

  2. Wonderful piece, Sandra, and great series, Linda! I appreciate the different perspectives. This one reminds me to slow down because I find that I’m most creative when I have a lot going on, that crowding creates interesting juxtapositions. (If you saw my desk, you’d scream.) But I also need to be able to simplify, and to notice the small things in quieter moments.

  3. Beautifully written, Sandra. Thank you for sharing your space, Linda. The director of the preschool my children attended agreed with Sandra’s songwriting friend. She resisted over-programmed days for children and toys that required little manipulation from children. Creativity comes after boredom, she would declare. Let them lie on the lawn on a summer day making animals from clouds. And so it goes for adults, too. In this world of endless distractions, I appreciate Sandra’s call to silence.

    • I appreciate it too, Laura. Cloud watching always helped me when I was a kid. And I also noticed that smaller kids quickly grow bored with their electronic gadgets. The imaginary tea drinker and her brothers still enjoy playing with tea sets, fake swords, and building blocks.

      I could use a bit of cloud watching myself today. . . .

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  5. Yes, I think this relates to the reasons why I think meditation is such a great practice for stimulating creativity — at least, when it comes to music, which is what I do — the creativity arises, in my experience, when I provide the space for it to do so, and meditation is a way to open that space. It’s not the same as the experience of thinking, which feels cramped and forced compared to the experience of allowing the music to simply play without “my” intervention.

    • Chris–yes! Meditation is an incredible link to creativity. Sleep too, actually. When I’m struggling particularly hard against something, I try to give it up to the muse that lives in my meditation and sleep space and let her figure it out. I’m continually surprised–although I shouldn’t be–how she comes through time and again with the flow in the right direction.

  6. Beautiful, Sandra! The silence in the night, the dance between rapid discourse and silence in the souk. It sounds like you had a wonderful experience and you certainly gained some great metaphors. I also love your friend’s statement: “Even if you don’t look like you are working, even if you don’t think you are working, you are.” Thanks!

    • Thank you, Stephanie. Morocco was an incredible place to visit–I just loved it. And I can’t tell you how many times my friend’s words have echoed in my head. As I said above to the Professor, we live in such a go-go society, where sitting and ‘doing nothing’ doesn’t garner a lot of admiration. I repeat my friends words to myself whenever guilt starts to creep in.

  7. Oh, this is such a lovely meditation. If only I could get away from the chatter of my own monkey mind to find the stillness of the creative void.

  8. A lot of people who visited the Sahara desert talked about that silence. I can only dream of experiencing it for myself one day but I love how you used it in comparison to writing and writers. Oh and until then? Meditation will have to do. 🙂

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