Essential Silence

Chris Friend (@chris_friend) teaches first-year writing classes, manages Hybrid Pedagogy, produces the podcast HybridPod, and needs to give his personal website its first facelift in three years. He lives near Tampa, Florida, USA.

flickr photo by Thomas Leuthard http://flickr.com/photos/thomasleuthard/8660104345 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

flickr photo by Thomas Leuthard http://flickr.com/photos/thomasleuthard/8660104345 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

(Audio version by Chris embedded at the end of this post.)

I attended a funeral last month. I wanted to speak, but I couldn’t — not for the lump in my throat or the tears in my eyes or any of the affective, funereal reasons. No, I didn’t speak because of logistics. When the officiant asked for volunteers to step forward and offer their remembrances, she made eye contact with That One Brave Soul who said before-hand that she would talk. Once she was at the podium, the speaker dazzled us by donning a feather boa and a festive costume hat (the deceased loved Halloween). The speaker made us laugh with character descriptions that were just on the truthful side of slanderous. She made us cry with confessions of missed opportunities to share her feelings in time.

Then she stepped down from the podium, and The Silence set in.

We’ve all seen it. We’ve been in rooms that are awkward and pensive, where people are contemplating what, when, and whether to speak. Or we’ve been in rooms where the general noise of chatter inexplicably fades to momentary silence, shattered by shards of tension-releasing self-conscious laughter. Or perhaps we’ve attended a concert where the applause holds off for a moment or two after the final note fades away. That one moment — that pause, that stillness, that calm before the storm — is electric, filled with anticipation, bursting with emotional awareness.

When the funeral service was afflicted by The Silence, the officiant decided to keep things moving. She took the silence as a lack of participation. For many in the audience, it may have been time they needed to build their confidence or their composure. I was waiting for the right moment, and for a couple more ideas to fall into place, before offering my thoughts. But that “right moment” never came; the officiant moved along without me.

And that’s the trouble with group conversations and speech: Timing is everything. The way we build in and work with natural pauses in our thinking and storytelling can help or hinder the audience in profound ways.

Readers can create those pauses whenever they need; they simply stop reading for a moment. One strategically placed finger lets a reader take all the time they want to think, to process, to digest, to respond, to take notes, or do practically anything else before returning to the same spot and resuming the story.

Listeners, though, especially those listening to material being broadcast, don’t have that same ability. Pausing the radio isn’t as simple. And while pausing a podcast is technically simple, it may be difficult — many people listen to podcasts while driving or doing other things that keep their hands busy at the time. Recorded audio is like conversation with an invisible — but very present — audience. We have to keep their needs, their thinking, and their timing in mind. That means adding a pause when the audience needs time to process. Or repeating something if it’s easy to miss on the first go-around. Teachers do this all the time with their live, in-person classes. But authors/composers owe their future audiences the same consideration.

With both text and audio, the pacing of what we say has to be carefully crafted to help the audience process what we’re saying. Marks of punctuation serve critical roles in helping readers understand the flow of our words and ideas, providing stage direction and speed limits for our inner voice to navigate. Working with audio, though, the speaker has almost exclusive control over that navigation, and we cannot forget that responsibility.

Audio is far more intimate than text. The vibrations of our vocal chords shake the air that shakes a microphone. Recreations of that sound through speakers or headphones then shake the air that then shakes listener’s eardrums. As Anne Fernald explained in the “Musical Language” episode of the podcast Radiolab, “sound is kind of touch…at a distance.” The more we talk, the more we share that touch with our audience. But sometimes, we have to slow down, to back off, to give our audience space.

This is something I often struggle with as I create episodes of HybridPod, the podcast extension of Hybrid Pedagogy. (Coincidentally, HybridPod grew from an experiment I conducted during DigiWriMo 2014. But I digress.) When I interview people for the episodes, our conversations follow a natural rhythm, pausing and accelerating as needed. But when I edit the conversations together into a single story, I have to consciously include the right amount of time for where breaths and thoughtful contemplation should go. When I create an audio story, I have to create space for the audience’s reaction. I really have to attend to the timing needs of my future listeners.

Even though I still struggle to create the right pacing, I want to provide a simple example of how quickly silence can draw attention to itself and how effectively it can be used.

In an episode of 99% Invisible (a podcast about design, architecture, and the built world around us), producer Roman Mars helped a reporter describe the structure of CitiCorp Tower, a building that was the centerpiece of the episode. Mars tells about several unexpected features of the building, making it sound like the thing shouldn’t be able to exist. The design sounds magical…or physically impossible, with structural supports in the middle of walls, rather than their corners, and with massive amounts of open air beneath the solid mass of the building. He ends the setup this way:

“It does not look sturdy. But it’s gotta be sturdy. It’s gotta be safe, or they wouldn’t have built it this way…right?”

That momentary pause, that fleeting hesitation — the one I’ve represented with an ellipsis — lasts only a fraction of a second, but it’s enough time for listeners to stop, take notice, and predict that the worried “Right?” is coming. For a show all about design, questioning the safety of a structure is kind of a big deal. (The episode’s title is “Structural Integrity” for that very reason.) That pause allows just enough time for listeners to reach the kinds of conclusions and skepticism and discomfort that the reporters want at that moment in the story. Basically, at just over two minutes in, they wind us up. Then they spend another twenty minutes bringing us back down again.

Things can unfold in the opposite direction, as well. Audio stories can be so personal, so intimate, and so raw that they unavoidably evoke a visceral reaction from listeners.  Uncomfortable or unpleasant stories take an emotional toll on us, and we need time and opportunity to regain our composure.

I recall one episode of Radiolab — a podcast I respect and admire — that included a segment about “yellow rain” containing a deeply unsettling interview in which the interviewee was brought to tears by difficult subject matter and inappropriately callous interviewing practices, and she called off the rest of the conversation. The producers knew her frustration and breakdown were hard to listen to, so they included five full seconds of complete silence after the interview concluded to help listeners recover. Those five seconds of “dead air” — an eternity for audio producers — were an essential means for showing respect to the anguished voices in the show and to give listeners an opportunity to grieve and recover before moving ahead with new ideas. The audience needed that time to process, and any sounds would have shattered the moment.

Silence isn’t only for emotional recovery. As with the flexible, nuanced pacing of everyday conversations, silence in audio recordings serves a variety of purposes. A few that come to mind:

  • Adds suspense
  • Shows discomfort (say, of an interviewee at a pressing question)
  • Provides transition from one thought/segment to the next
  • Emphasizes intensity
  • Encourages others to participate/speak
  • Allows listeners time to process

That last point can be crucial. It’s a gesture of compassion for listeners if the storyteller slows down for a bit. After a particularly intense moment (emotionally or intellectually), a pause allows listeners to finish their thinking about a segment, reach their conclusions, and “gather their thoughts”. Anyone who has helped another person learn something new has seen the importance of a well-timed pause to allow things to “sink in”. As you write/create, remember to allow for those moments in your audience, too. In whatever you’re writing this month, pay a little extra attention to the pacing, the punctuation, or the pauses. What’s not there can at times be even more helpful than what is. Embrace the silence and let it speak for you.

“No word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.” — Mark Twain

We hope you will share your work across the various Digital Writing Month spaces that you inhabit. That could be right here at the Digital Writing Month blog; at your own blog or writing space; on Twitter with the #DigiWriMo hashtag; in the DigiWriMo Google Plus Community; at the DigiWriMo Facebook page; or wherever you find yourself writing digitally.

Resounding Silence

Simon Ensor aka @sensor63 aka Dodger (deceased) is an exiled Francophile Blackpudlian who writes wrongs and other  puzzling stories.

His blog is the largely self-composted Touches of Sense

Dark image with some waves of blue across it

image of Bull Inn Pub Gents WC wall by @Sensor

Resounding Silence

Writing aloud.

Microphone

Transcription.

“How do you like to write?”

This is a question that I’ve been asking myself recently.

“How do I like to write?”

Well, there was a time when I would only really pick up a pen and a scrap of paper and I used to love feeling my weight, on the nib, on the paper, to such an extent that I almost made holes in it…scribbling on it.

Over the past couple of years I’ve found blogging has come naturally to me, which was quite a surprise.

I have a space in which I am comfortable.

There are times when I just sit down and I know that I want to blog.

I open up the laptop.

Words come to me.

At other times, there are pictures that I have in my mind, or a story.

They come either in a rush or they just emerge…but quite recently, I’ve been trying to find other ways to make my life more of an adventure.

Messing around with sound.

That’s what I’ve been doing.

Messing around with sound.

Sound offers all sorts of new compositional difficulties.

Time.

Time.

The time I am taking to do this…

The pauses…

The breath…to open up the next sentence…to give you…

All of that is quite unprepared….

There’s no writing going on before.

But, being literate, I’ve no question that this is writing.

This is writing with my voice.

It’s a bit more dangerous…writing like this.

You can hear the hesitation…

You can hear the doubt….

You can the frustration…

Huh!

“I”ve got nothing to say.”
“It’s not going to be profound.”

Somehow with words and bold and italic it seems…it seems to wipe away…the hesitation.

I can just ditch it.

It’s less painful.

“Open mic.”
“Live.”

No space to hide.

I was using Soundcloud. Then, one day…I was trying to go back to Soundcloud with which I was familiar…went to the same old button on the screen…what did I find?

Impossible to log in!

What a bloody nuisance!!

Well, I really had something to say, it seemed…or else I had nothing better to do apart from to speak to an iPhone!

I ventured into Garageband.

Never been there before.

It all seemed a bit worrying: music, musical instruments…

That wasn’t for me.

And yet, as a compositional space, there are all sorts of interesting possibilities.

“What if I recorded my voice in a large room?”

What would that do to your understanding of it?

What would happen if I took your writing and transformed it with my voice? Now that’s a question, I asked myself.

Over a few weeks now, I’ve been delving into the depths, trying to work out…a path, a plan..

Trying to find my voice, in this new…new…new…new…game?

I like that risk.

I can’t put bold. I can’t choose the font. I can’t change the size of the text.

All that will have to come after.

It’s like the first blog.

It’s like the first poem.

I’m an amateur.

I’m fairly sure this is writing…writing anew…writing aloud

I invite you to join me.

I’ve no idea what’s going to come out of it.

Maybe nothing at all.

Maybe I shall continue alone.

No matter, I’m having fun, here, I’m discovering new vistas.

This is my voice anew.

This is my voice aloud.

An Inspiration: Make Writing … Digital

Try one or more sound activities – adapt – remix – invent – play!

Before starting you can take a look at these posts from Flipboard.

And/or listen to these #adhocvoices recordings on Soundcloud.

Hashtag all your recordings with #digiwrimo

Some ideas

1) Use a sound recorder as a writing tool.

Try to treat it as you might a page.

Don’t stop recording. Play with the silence.

Possible Sound recorders – Audiocopy on IOS/Android/Audacity on PC

Upload sounds to Soundcloud.

2) Try using a sound/music editor like Garageband to compose.

Rather than use silence try using a note, a beat, a noise, a piece of music.

3) Try recording somebody’s blog post and share it with them.

4) Play with existing sounds – make transcripts – make collages – make remixes.

In all cases please share your process and reflections with all at #digiwrimo.

Sounds difficult?
Shout for help!!! :-)
Nobody might offer an answer.

We hope you will share your work across the various Digital Writing Month spaces that you inhabit. That could be right here at the Digital Writing Month blog; at your own blog or writing space; on Twitter with the #DigiWriMo hashtag; in the DigiWriMo Google Plus Community; at the DigiWriMo Facebook page; or wherever you find yourself writing digitally.

Working Out Loud: Listening To What We Write

By Sarah Honeychurch

A close up photo of a Soundcraft Series Five 56 channel mixer at Vineyard Columbus

flickr photo by fensterbme shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

As we go about our day to day lives, we are surrounded by sound. Often we take this for granted, and although we hear the sounds, we forget to listen to them.  And, likewise, when we publish our digital writings all too often we limit these writings to typed words and digital images – we forget to add the power of sound. When an author speaks her words out loud it adds a whole extra layer of meaning to her message; when a musician puts his words to music he gives them a new interpretation; when we select a melody to accompany our moving images we elevate them to a different level.  We are creatures who talk, who listen, who sing, as well as creatures who think and write – and it is important to remember that during our digital explorations.

What We Have In Store This Week

This week, for Digital Writing Month, we are focussing on the ways in which we can use sounds in order to enhance or translate our written words and digital images.

We hope you keep your ears open. Listen to the way that voices help to tell a story. Think about the ways that sounds and tunes can be used to change the ambience of your words. Which sounds form the backdrop to your everyday life – which ones do you love and which to you dislike?  Which ones are so familiar to you that you barely notice them, and which would you miss if you could never hear them again? As I type this the Jayhawks are playing in the background and I can hear my cats crunching on their evening meal – sounds that mean Saturday evening to me. Which sounds define you and what you do?

Our Guides On This Audio Adventure

Our guest contributors this week, and the source for each post’s Daily Inspiration, include:

  • Ron Leunissen, who explains how his passion for creating digital media was inspired by DS106.
  • Simon Ensor, who talks about messing around with sound.
  • Wendy Taleo, who talks about how sounds can bring two dimensional writing to life.
  • Chris Friend, who reminds us of the importance of the pause and silence when we write.

And you. You are also guest contributors. We invite you to open your mouths and ears this week and get excited by the power of sound.  Get inspired to share your creations with the Digital Writing Month community. Collaborate with others if that’s something you like to do.

International Working Out Loud Week

By a strange coincidence, as we move into thinking about audio during Digital Writing Month, we discovered that November 16th – 23rd is also International Working Out Loud Week (#WolWeek). I’m not exactly sure what this is – I think it’s actually about sharing work with a community at an early stage and getting feedback about it, but what a lovely bit of serendipity it is that we have found out about it.