Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On Shutting Up.
(a thinly-veiled rant by Sera)

In the middle of my week-long workshop at shiny happy Esalen, my teacher made a suggestion that changed my life for, I hope, evah. Here's how it went down.

We spent the morning dancing (ecstatically). At lunchtime, she rang her little Tibetan bell and gestured for us to gather 'round the tealight votives. And then she told us she'd chatted with one of her students, who gave her a great idea for an exercise. This exercise, she said, was totally optional. But she felt it would help us stay with the stuff we were learning in the workshop - because we only work for four or five hours, and spend the rest of the day eating organic food and soaking in the hot springs and staring dumbly at the beauty all around us... and, of course, yammering on and on to each other about our jobs back home, our favorite yoga position (I like Buddha Reclining On Futon With Remote Control), the dubious merits of polyamory, our awesome therapists, the horror wreaked by Tara Reid's plastic surgeon, and whatever other topic best serves that universal Esalen pastime, flirting like it's 1968.

The idea, she said, was to Hold Silence. That means this: outside of the short discussions we have while working, no talking for 24 hours. Little stickies reading "In Silence" would be provided; if we wore them, everyone would know not to be offended when we mutely pointed at stuff. "Just see how it goes," she said. "It's optional. But it could be interesting."

Noise erupted in the Dance Dome. Excited chatter, with an edge of panic. I knew immediately that I would be grabbing the opportunity to be In Silence for 24 hours. God knows I've never done it before, and who knows when I'd ever get to try it again?

I've long been fascinated by silence. I keep thinking (and then forgetting) I'm going to google the phrase "silent meditation retreat," for example. See, I am a person who knows she talks A LOT. Words are my living, my fluffy pillow, my titanium shield, the fat marshmallows in my Ovaltine. You know those t-shirts that say "Jesus Is My Homeboy"? The English language is my homeboy.

This is so true of me that it deserves another paragraph or three. Y'all know I make my Very Hot mortgage payment by typing words in script form. Did you know that before I sacrificed my freakish ability at the altar of College Substance Experimentation, I was also a Spelling Bee champion? It's t-r-u-e. My seventh grade year, I was nine nerdy kids away from going to Washington to compete in the Nationals. (Remember that the next time you think you're the geekiest person you know. You know me.) I have this inner sense of words, their little motors and gears, the weight of their individual letters, how they came to be. When I first read Lolita I cherished it for what it was: porn. Not kiddie porn - though there are a couple of nice moments if you're into that too - but word porn. I could feel Nabokov rolling around in the English language like Demi Moore on a bed full of a crisp nonsequential bills. I saw a kindred spirit - hey, I ain't saying I'll ever write like the dude, I'm just saying I feel where he's coming from.

Back in the day, when I was a poor freelancer, I often churned out press releases and artist bios for Sime's Lovely Wife Julia, then an editor for Dreamworks Records. Those pieces were essentially two pages of interview quotes, each followed by a variation of the phrase "he said." Jules sent me a three page list of alternates for the word "said." Hazarded, relayed, quipped, elaborated, confessed. Some so useful, some so awkward, some so unexpectedly intimate. Oh, how tickled I was by that list of said words. I still have it somewhere. I think it is awesome. The fact that Simon and Julia understand my deep and abiding affection for that list is a primary reason we're such good friends.

So, yeah, I heart me some blah blah blah. But I also know that there's more to life, and more to me, than just pleasurable discourse. And I'm a curious kind of chick. I wanna know what's on the other side. So I grabbed a stickie and declared myself In Silence.

Full disclosure: I had a moment of oh fuck no, what have I done?! I couldn't figure out how I was going to shut up for that long. I've never even shut up through an entire dinner. Not even when pissed at parents or boyfriend - I always opted for the acid "pass the butter," at the very least. But I got a hold of myself. The anxiety passed, replaced my a warm, glowing nugget of excitement in my belly. I do love an exercise.

So, the next 24 hours were epic. I learned so much about myself that I could easily fill four or five posts - not that I'm going to, because a lot of it wouldn't translate. Well, that's a lie, it probably would, I just don't want to tell you about it. It's not that I don't love you - I do. You're so damn Hot, who could resist you? It's just... a lot of what happened isn't funny. It's not light, blogarific material.

Some of it (lucky you!) is blog-friendly - like when I got busted in the Dance Dome in the middle of the night by an irate Australian Esalen employee in a strange hempy hat for doing various [redacted] things with another workshop member. And then there was dinner in the packed, buzzing dining hall, In Silence amid a sea of blabbing folk, unable to shut out their gobsmackingly inane conversation with the sound of my own voice. Around the third time the guy at the next table repeated the key phrase of his disturbingly meal-inappropriate tale ("I was so disgusted with myself that I just vomited. I vomited and vomited and vomited!") I started laughing hysterically and simply could not stop. Tears rolled down my face. My In Silence dinner companion stared at me with benevolent confusion before finally shrugging and returning his full, rich, intense Silent focus to the brownie he was consuming with near-erotic concentration.

Anyway, a lot of my experience can be summed up by saying: I had a few of the best conversations of my life.

I had no idea people would keep talking if I didn't punctuate their tale with "mm hmm"s and wry observations. Turns out - people will talk. In fact, if you just wait long enough, they'll tell you the thing they really wanted to say all along, the thing they were scared of saying, the thing they were half-hoping you would cut them off before they got to (and half-praying you wouldn't). Because I wasn't speaking, my only job was to listen. I did a fair smattering of nodding, too. And I cried a bit - I had a conversation with a woman that lasted over an hour, in which she told me some pretty deep and serious personal shit. She spoke simply and clearly about being scared, and my heart broke like a loose pill in a handbag. I felt helpless and honored. Afterwards, I thought about how I ordinarily would have tried to give that woman advice. But what do I know, really? Doubtless nothing she hasn't heard before. All she really needed was someone to listen. So: yay for that In Silence Stickie. It helped me do what, under normal circumstances, I am probably not mature enough to handle.

Why am I telling you this? Well, this morning my well-meaning neighbor stopped me while I was walking Mojo.

"I heard on the news," she said. "Tough break."

I asked her what she was talking about. She said she'd just heard a report indicating that the WGA strike might go on for another year.

I assured her it was all rumor. No one knows how long the strike could last - that's the nature of striking. A year... well, that is serious doomsday predicting. I'm not saying it's impossible. I'm just saying it's not fact, and it's upsetting, so why spread that around?

I know a lot of you distractingly sexy people have found this blog because you are TV fans and you are looking for info, any info - even, in the absence of something better, speculation from a random producer on a show that gets ratings that would cause Shonda Rhimes to stick her head in an oven. So I would like to take this opportunity to say: NO ONE KNOWS WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN.

By no one, I mean people who are not media moguls. If you are not hearing the gossip from Peter Chernin, you are doing the strike-time equivalent of feeding Britney another frappuccino. No good will come of it. And at this point, we are all getting tired. Tired people are vulnerable. They get upset more easily. I work off my strike hours these days at WGA Headquarters, cleaning out the musty, musky vans and pulling staples out of wooden sticks. I stand in a room stacked high with picket signs, listening as a half-dozen or so increasingly tired and vulnerable writers speculate. Optimism for up to fifteen minutes devolves quickly into resigned exhaustion - teetering dangerously close to raging hopelessness. Luckily, we have electric staple guns into which to channel our frustration. BAM! BAM! Another sign successfully constructed. Take that, AMPTP! By 7:45, the conversation magically turns to this year's object of writer player-hate, Diablo Cody. I'm not kidding - this happens every single shift I work. Someone disparages the authenticity of her stripper background and says people don't talk like Juno. Which is apparently unacceptable because... Juno is meant to be a searing look at the cold hard reality of the word choices of plucky preggers teeny-bops? Since she was going to be writing about it, Diablo wasn't really all up in the body odor of the lapdance-ee of the moment, but rather safely ensoconced in The Matrix? (Hey, Diablo - if you're reading this? Just between me and you, I think you deserve the hype. I checked your box on the nomination ballot the WGA sent. And yes, you can buy me a coffee.)

Anyway, whilst the night shift of bespectacled writers duct-tapes splintery sign handles, bitches pithily, and prognosticates like a bunch of balding Cassandras, I think you know I am telling the truth when I say: I say nothing.

Wouldn't you like to join me? In saying a little more nothing? I think we could all use the company, because it is difficult to sit still with agitation. Any good Buddhist will tell you that - trying to cope with anxiety and worry is why a whole shitload of 'em dumped their previous church of choice and picked up meditating to begin with. I'm not even a bad Buddhist, I'm a secular Jew who eats bacon and mostly dates gentiles, yet I know this truth with the same deep certainly with which I know that the word for something way uncool to religious people is not spelled the same way as the word "religious" (i.e.: "sacrilegious," a word that totally would have sent me to Washington if I'd gotten it instead of stupid, stupid "tectonics." Not that I'm bitter.)

It is difficult to just be with the Not Knowing. Actually, the word "difficult" is too mild. It is totally fucking hard as shitballs in the Sahara to just be with the Not Knowing.

But the other option - spinning rumors, worrying, kvetching, trying to turn suspect information into a cohesive grid - doesn't help. Just because a theory is logical doesn't make it true. The true thing is that we little guys, writers and viewers alike, have next to zero control over the strike. We can choose to picket, send pencils to moguls, write a blog. But we can't tell either side's negotiators what to do. We can't make the big shit happen, or stop happening. We are along for the ride. Sucks, but it's true. Now you know how 99.9% of people felt during any historical event you ever read about. Honestly, if you set your mind to it, you can probably have more impact on which candidate lands the Democratic presidential nomination than on the outcome of this strike.

I've been contacted a few times since the new year by various fan site administrators and journalist types, asking if I could verify a rumor that the show I work for has been cancelled. Apparently the rumor is strong and pernicious. I'd like to use this rumor briefly, as an example of why we should all put on In Silence Stickies. Here goes.

If a network TV show was cancelled, it would be in the legitimate press. And before that, it would almost certainly be scooped by the likes of Nikki Finke - who herself is so sick of sifting third-hand info that she just took a week off. It wouldn't happen in secret. It couldn't. Nor would a network in wartime want it to - cancelled shows are pilloried for the masses, their gruesome severed heads set up on stakes. The better to freak out striking writers.

It's natural to want to feel some sense of control in crazy times. To search for a fact, any fact, to quell the insecurity. But I got bad news: what you're clutching to your chest ain't a fact. It's a crazymaking little rumor. It's about as good for you as snorting a pound of pixie stix.

So, in the absence of grasping at straws, what are we left with? Good question. Here's what I know - and I am a supreme expert, because I spent an entire twenty-four hour period in silence, which, I'm not sure, but may be some form of worldwide Jewish record.

We are left with listening.

Not listening to the rumors - that's almost as bad as repeating them. They're like... let's pick a good metaphor here, shall we? They're like mosquitoes. They bite you. What they carry gets in your blood stream. Swat 'em, yo.

But listening to people - even the people spouting streams of totally unverified crap - is pretty damn fascinating. You learn a lot about a person by how they tell a story. By what they latch onto. By what upsets them, what energizes them, what they need reassurance about. Any time your friend opens their mouth, they are giving you the opportunity to get to know them better. No matter what they say. Same with your parents; same with that disgruntled Hollywood florist fearing for their job; same with WGA Commander-in-Chief Patric Verrone. Slap a mental In Silence Stickie on yourself for a hot second. Wait. See listening as an exercise less in grasping for something to comfort your harried mind and more as an opportunity to learn a little something about whoever's doing the talking.

I don't mean to sound all teacher-y about this. All kidding aside, I consider myself to be a near-total novice in... well, a whole fuckload of things having to do with human interaction. I didn't become a writer because I was so genius at understanding people; I did it because I was so confused by people that I figured if I reconstructed their behavior on paper, I might be able to make better sense of it. I'm sharing because a)I am over the fear-mongering, and wanted to announce it publicly; and b)the above-suggested attitude adjustment has turned this time of grand weirdness, ick and uncertainty into a fun experiment for me. Talking people are the test subjects, the strike is the lab. If you want to come talk to me, I'll be in the corner with a clipboard, taking notes. I'm the Jewish one with all the hair. You know, the one with her mouth shut.


Anna said...

"Words are my living, my fluffy pillow, my titanium shield, the fat marshmallows in my Ovaltine. You know those t-shirts that say "Jesus Is My Homeboy"? The English language is my homeboy."

I loved the whole post - this is just one of the examples I felt I had to clip and paste.

I enjoy reading your posts so much because your voice is so vivid and irreverent and real, and comes across so damn well on the page. You remind me very much of a modern Mark Twain.

Spadada said...

Wow. This post makes my recent decision to go on a 10 day silent meditation retreat seem even more right. I am terrified of it (especially if I won't be permitted to at least write) but it will be well worth the initial discomfort. Maybe I should try what you did as practice. The way you described listening without talking back sounds especially powerful. It's amazing isn't it? How much we miss when we talk. Like you, I talk a lot. That's probably why I felt so comfortable chatting you up on the picket line :)

Daniel said...

At the risk of redunancy, and god knows that's the antithesis of silence, I agree with the other comments. The one fleck that shone particularly brightly for me in this post was how difficult it is to be okay with what is essentially powerlessness and ignorance. Once I recognize these wolverines in the snakepit of my life, I feel compelled to snare them and tame them, or at least get them declawed and put big gold caps on their teeth. So much effort, and it's always for naught. The frustration of wasting that work and winding up no wiser - even weaker and more confused, usually - than I started is almost debilitating. To learn to quell that voice that shrills its response to the unanswerable, would be invaluable to me. I'd be interested whether you find it changes the way you write about the way people communicate with each other - or with themselves.

vikkitikkitavi said...

What a wonderful post, Sera. Thank you.

My father, who is a gifted student of psychology, once told me that every damaged person will tell you exactly what is wrong with them, if you only listen.

I can't tell you how many times over the years I have found that to be true. When I encounter someone who seems somehow odd, or off-kilter, or even just upset, I will try to listen to them as simply as I can, without that mechanism that urges me to constantly place what they're saying in the context of my own life.

And then I will hear them say something like "Oh well, no one cares what I think, anyway," or "in my day, people knew their place," things that maybe sound like an off-the-cuff remark, but when you're really paying attention, you realize that you've just been offered a tiny window into their soul.

It's amazing how persistently the truth struggles to get out, isn't it?

Lucy Arin said...

When I first read Lolita I cherished it for what it was: porn. Not kiddie porn - though there are a couple of nice moments if you're into that too - but word porn. I could feel Nabokov rolling around in the English language like Demi Moore on a bed full of a crisp nonsequential bills. I saw a kindred spirit - hey, I ain't saying I'll ever write like the dude, I'm just saying I feel where he's coming from.

This is how I feel about language too...not just English, although it is the one I know best. You express things so beautifully, with such wit. Thanks.

brazilian girls said...

I hear ya.

The Minstrel Boy said...

you are close to touching one of the big things of the apache. we are notoriously a silent people. many times we will gather, and just remain in silence. silence is considered to be a beautiful thing. silence, in response to a question is assumed to be a positive reply.

many of our ceremonies involve periods of silence, often long silences of three or more days, in the preparation of the participants.

i have, often out here in your world, had my silences mistaken, or misunderstood. when i am silent, i am content, and happy. i told a singer i was working for over the summer "if i am upset, everyone will know." she believed, but after the next show i had to make the effort to tell her how wonderful she had been. it made a huge difference for her, and required a small effort from me.

a silencing period can be a very good thing. even for a word flinger like yourself.


Mollie said...

while studying anthropology i learned of a native american culture (can't remember which, probably due to pot and laziness) whose members will not speak to you the first time you visit their home. it is considered rude to talk to your guest. they want you to have the opportunity to access the situation on your own, without being rudely interrupted.
i can't imagine being in a group and not talking, loudly and often to the point where my veins visibly strain in my neck.
in my family, the loudest one gets the most attention and if you are quite, well, there must be something wrong.
a native american has recently married into my family and i am almost certain that after our christmas celebration she is convinced that not only are we rude and hate each other but we are all insane.
thank you sera for your thought provoking blog. i really want to talk to you about it.

Simon Glickman and Sera Gamble said...

Mollie - and Minstrel -
I so appreciate that style of interaction, much as it clashes with my loud Jewish upbringing. I imagine it would be nice to be given the chance to really experience someone's house without having to talk. But I'd be like, Thanks for having me, bye! And then I'd come back in five minutes so we could chat.

H said...

Supernatural's ratings might make other producers want to commit seppuku, but we fans love our little show that could, and we love you, too, for giving it your heart. I feel so much for you and the other writers, who are just struggling to make it through the strike. I think it's hard for most people to imagine just how much courage it takes to face the reality of it every day with no control over when it might end or what will happen to the work you've so invested in. It's easy to understand why silence is preferred over speculation.

Agnes said...

I was struck by your description of silence because it's familiar to me as a Quaker. We meet in silence to worship, to listen in silence to the still small voice within, and I've always been amazed by the difference between corporate silence and individual silence. You might find it interesting to attend a meeting, to which all are welcome, and which you can find here. This is not an attempt to convert you from The Hot Judaism, just a comment to let you know that it's a possibility for another experience of silence.

mtngrl said...

Oh Sera, it is perfect that I didn't read this until today. So many things going on NON-freaking-STOP lately and I keep searching for ways to make sense of it all to no avail. It's just all been noise.

Like your example of listening to that woman with so many personal issues while you were experiencing your 24 hours In Silence, it's fricken hard to not feel the need to find/have the answers. My tendency is to yammer on about it even if its just talking in circles!

Yesterday, maybe with nothing else left to do, I just stopped. Stopped trying to figure it out and stopped searching and stopped the "WTF??" outbursts (even the ones just in my head). I just got quiet. Just sat still. And guess what?

Some things all of a sudden became clearer. Not all...but its a start. :)

P.S. Totally a geek with you! 7th grade - 8th place! Stupid silent letters...

luckyplume said...

Sera, thank you for this.

I've been stewing on some things for a long time now and your post gave me a much needed kick in the pants.

It may have even caused tears. Maybe.

Looking forward to exploring the rest of the blog.

susannah eanes said...

*is dancing, in silence, to the music of the spheres*

The Minstrel Boy said...


i said hello to the two bunch ducks for you. they were all lahdeedah about it. i think they carry their promise of privacy a little too far sometimes.

Rachael said...

I loved this post.

To the particulars before I go on all day about how much I love your blog... I knew a boy in fifth grade, who snorted a Pixie Stix in class one day. Not even on a dare, he just wanted to see what it would do. And he spent the next 15 minutes writhing in pain on the floor until the school nurse and several administrators came to take him to the school office. Apparently, citric acid burns certain mucus membranes.

So it's very true. Paying attention to those crazymaking rumors is about as good as snorting Pixie Stix.

Wool in Sunshine said...

Excellent words. I'm in the middle of something right now with some friends where I find myself listening a lot. The part that ties me up in knots is the polite noises I have to make to let them know I'm still listening ("Does that sound dismissive? Should I say something supportive instead of just grunting?") and the occasional moments when I give them advice ("Maybe I should have just grunted?").

Now I'll go into these discussions with an open mind and a quiet voice. Hopefully letting them unload on me will be more fruitful than just the grunting! Thanks!

Charmaine said...

Hi Sera. Considering your recent interview and your answer about the Supernatural tattoos, I thought you might be interested in seeing this. *grin*