Silences   ·   Tillie Olsen

(Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 19781)

This is a hard book to classify, and one I have the most mixed sort of feelings about. This book was presented, in creative writing circles at Oberlin College at least, in the late Seventies, as a sort of practical bible for writers, particularly once they left the shelter of a college setting and would need to negotiate the realities of a writing life in an era when few writers make a living from their writing; this is true even of some of the most accomplished writers of our times, and has been true for at least a century. Some, like the poet Elizabeth Bishop, managed to thrive, at least to a degree, by redefining, to some degree, what was art and what was life. My feeling, at this point in time, is that this is a book that both succeeds and fails in its mission.

On a good day, it is surely reassuring to know that others have been through the same things we all go through — by all, I mean all writers. On a blue day, reading a passage from Silences, especially some of the more bleak passages, one can barely muster motivation at all... choosing the wrong passage can leave you (or maybe it's just me) wondering why one writes at all.

But in any case, the book is a vital one, and one that many writers I know swear by, rather than swear at. The scope of the book is tremendous, and it's especially useful for those who must negotiate between family and other practical commitments and the time (and energy) necessary for writing. It can be a particularly useful book for women who are writers, since it addresses many of the distortions that persist, that have (historically, at least) rendered women writers not only silent, but, when they have managed to get the work done, has rendered them, in many cases, practically invisible.

As long as one's anger and upset over some of the incidents recorded in this book are put to productive ends, it is a practical antidote to naysaying and the sort of discouragement that nearly all writers face at some time or another. Frustratingly, it is also a book that has been hard to find in print, in recent years. It's not entirely clear to me, in fact, whether, at the time I first draft this note, the book is or is not available in print.

More than any other book I know, Silences is a compendium of the "dead ends" — the ways that one can be silenced, both silencing by active interference (which sometimes cannot be avoided) and also silencing oneself through giving too much space to internal voices, doubts, naysaying, and other intrusions by the internal censors. It is in this area that the book most excels, though there are many others who have come to print since 1965 to expand on one or more of the themes Olsen developed in her work.

Other writers on writing:

Virginia Woolf  ·   A Room of One's Own

Much better-known treatment of what a writer (though more particularly a woman writer) needs to survive and to keep writing.
Julia Cameron  ·   The Artist's Way

This and other works by Cameron are much-recommended for dealing with blockage and self-censorship. See jessicapierce's great write-up.



1 Portions of Silences appeared in substantially different form as magazine articles in 1965, 1978. Sections of the book also appeared in other works by Olsen in 1972.
Drafted: August 24, 2000
Revised: August 24, 2000
First noded: August 24, 2000


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