When I sat down to write today, I did something different: I decided not to write for a moment. Instead, I listened to the different sounds happening in and around my home. It was enlightening. From this tiny attic writing room in which I work, with its two slanting windows that let in daylight then moonlight, I hear the hum of the fridge two floors down, jackdaws on the roof, the gush of water in the fast-moving stream, my cat snoring on her blanket and the occasional rattle of a farm vehicle.
Before I became a writer I used to think silence was scary. Just sit in a chair alone in your house for ten minutes and do nothing, read nothing, say nothing. What does it feel like? Spooky? Weird? Uncomfortable? Do your fingertips tingle with anticipation as you reach out towards the stereo or TV, hoping it will save you? Okay, maybe it’s not that bad. But I am a huge fan of music as well and that never helped me get into silence. Stuff like The Bug, Staff Benda Bilili, Krallice, Agnes Obel, Four Tet, The xx, Hot Chip, Deftones, Aphex Twin, Laurent Garnier, Panda Bear, Nirvana, The Fall, Stone Roses, The Smiths, Durutti Column, Blur – loud people, raucous people – so silence just never happened to me when I was younger, but when I write – and I’ve been doing that a lot more recently – I simply can’t listen to anything with lyrics because I can’t concentrate. My brain starts saying those words instead of my own. No matter how hard I try to let them just flow by, I always get distracted. You can’t just ignore Kurt Cobain or Chino Morino. So, I switched off one day. I switched off – and just listened to the silence.
Starting by trying to respect it, then accept it. Slowly, over time and with practice, I learned to love it. There’s a powerful beauty to noiselessness. At first it can feel like a prison. You just want to get out. But then, when your mind starts filling with calm, with ideas, with new beginnings, new stories, the way mine does, the silence becomes freedom. Filling our heads with other people’s music means we can’t think up our own. Constantly reading other people’s books is the best way never to write one. I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t read new books and musicians shouldn’t listen to different sound-waves, but occasionally, switching off and being present in the nothingness is a treat, a free retreat, a chance to find something unique within ourselves for a change.
Nowadays, my best work happens when there is no music. (Kurt and Chino have to wait until I’m finished.) It helps that I live in a place that is naturally atmospheric, but I still think it can be done anywhere with the right mindset. Any house has eerie noises. Any street has subtle sound nuances. Before I write, I fully immerse myself in the nondescript gurgling, rippling, beeping, creaking and breathing of the house, then I turn my attention outside to distant farm noises – a raging bull, crying sheep, crazy squawking birds and clucking chickens. When the hubbub of animal sounds dies down something else emerges: a slower, less predictable rustle of leaves, brush of bird’s wings. Even the last, slowly-moving car, swooshing through rainwater on the lane outside can set off a chain of events in my head. Finally, as everyone goes indoors to watch TV or sleep, I wait for the owl that sits in the tree just outside the window every night talking to his mate.
These sound-observations became the subconscious background score to quiet shocker, Slaughterhouse, in which subtly is paramount in creating the brooding tension Kris, the main character, faces as he gets deeper into the lives of the three women in the ranch he visits. Nothing too obvious happens at first because it’s not an in-your-face story; it’s all in the small things, the way something just feels out of place. There’s a maturity to the creepiness. I now know that sound can be the most comforting thing we hear, or the scariest. Little creaks are what keep us up at night. It’s not just the sound itself, though – it’s also the listener’s state of mind when they hear it.
If you’d like to discover the secrets behind Slaughterhouse check this out or read more from the blog: find out what happens to a bad day when you sneak in a book?, what made her want a world of sex, lies, injustice and danger? or why I love to be inspired by darkness.
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