The People from Porlock: Trying to Write in a Noisy World

The NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!

I’ve been thinking a lot about quiet spaces and how I find fewer and fewer of these places available, even within my own apartment. It started with the coffee shops, art museums, and botanic gardens, and truly one cannot have an expectation of quiet in places that attract masses of people from all over the world. It’s when the noise overtook the library that I became so frustrated that I wrote a piece for another blog about how providing quiet spaces in the library is actually an equity issue.

What does it mean for writers and other artists when we have no quiet spaces? After all, E.B. White famously said that “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” This is the sentence that has become the subject of countless memes and writerly advice during classes. However, research on this quote reveals that the line is another cherry-picked piece of advice because the sentence immediately preceding it is, “ If I get sick of [noise], I have places I can go.” That’s key — he has a place he can go and recognized implicitly in those words that a quiet place might be essential for concentration.

A bronze statue of a face with the hand up and one index finger over the lips.
Image by Ernie Stephens.

How important is it really, though? Surely some writers did their best work listening to neighbors fight in New York tenements or in Parisian cafes filled with American ex-pats. I offer the following from everyday experience. Think about driving in unfamiliar places or in a torrential downpour. If you normally listen to music, chances are that you turn down the music and may ask people in the car to stop talking. It makes sense — you need to concentrate and the noise becomes a distraction. While driving under normal conditions in familiar places may be easy for the brain, and even so monotonous that music can perk up a bored and sleepy driver, driving in extraordinary circumstances taxes the brain’s functions.

Why is this the case? It turns out that while as amazing as this organ inside our skulls happens to be, its abilities are not limitless. When looking for an address in a busy urban area you aren’t familiar with, for example, the radio distracts you from the primary activity at hand — locating your destination. With music playing, there is a competition for attention, forcing the brain to engage in attention-switching, a shift back and forth between assigning importance to various inputs. With each switch of attention comes a small delay, and it is during this delay that a driver could zip by an address or miss signs of black ice ahead of them in inclement weather.

Most of us have had that experience, so doesn’t logic dictate that the same attention-switching principle applies to creative activities? While music can provide needed noise to block out or mask ambient din, it can also snag the brain’s attention away from critical thoughts and processes that result in unique creations. Someone’s compelling conversation near your bench in front of a Monet haystack painting at the Art Institute might inspire an entire scene, but it could also steal the poetic couplet that was forming in your mind as you regarded the work before you. With a lack of quiet spaces available even within the public libraries that were once bastions of “Shhhh!”, where is a person supposed to go for a little solitude and time to focus?

Image by Robin Higgins.

There’s no easy answer for this. Not everyone can take off for Lake Havasu and stay in a private cabin all day. Writing and artist retreats cost money, as does renting a coworking space (which doesn’t always have an expectation of members being quiet, so beware!). Libraries and other public places seem dominated by talking and other people’s bluetooth speakers that sometimes are playing very good music — it’s just that your craft doesn’t need that particular auditory boost at this time. My Buddhist friend argues that once you find the silence within, the external noise doesn’t bother you, but I’m not sure that’s practical, at least in the short term. I have a beloved pair of noise-cancelling headphones that work well, but they aren’t always practical either when you need to keep your wits about you in a public space.

It seems that this might require a culture shift again. Quiet spaces rely on the consent of all parties in the area. Just one rogue person refusing to follow the expectations of a space can spoil the experience entirely for everyone else. As a culture, we have to agree on the importance of quiet places and be willing to act with full knowledge of how important that space can be. One person blogging into the void complaining about noise and distraction in society is not going to change anything. However, as a society, we need to examine our priorities and decide if there is value in quiet in certain public spaces and, if so, how we can create circumstances and boundaries that reflect those values.

I’m not saying we all have to be silent all the time. Good conversations and music with an active tempo invigorate me — it’s only that there is a right time and place for certain activities. I’m saying that watching YouTube without headphones in the public library’s study area isn’t the right time and place for that activity. I want children to gather in public spaces, play, and make noise in their joyful quest to explore the world. I also want those same children to have accessible, quiet places that allow them the cognitive space and lack of stimuli to actively process what they’ve learned, to regenerate their minds, and to be able to focus on an activity that requires less external stimuli and more internal focus.

Sometimes a person needs A Quiet Place, although this might not be the answer either.

A Quiet Place, the 2018 movie imagining a post-apocalyptic world, where a family is forced to live in silence while hiding from monsters with ultra-sensitive hearing.

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