revisiting old writings as I think about seriously picking up my pen + a tad of design again

[in the space of silence]
Kathryn Kelley 2006


Silence is space. In fullness, silence seizes emptiness. In absence, silence seizes presence. Sense and nonsense merge. The temporal dissociates. The knotted unknots. The cluttered, clotted mass of knowledge and experience unravels. Memory is reanimated and edited. Seeing becomes hearing and hearing seeing. Silence disrupts normalcy, bypasses logic. Silence enables transparency of being, knowing, becoming.

Silence is empty space. In this space, change becomes possible.

The degree of silence determines both the depth of space and how one enters that space—skimming, grazing, wading, or immersing.

In silence, I awaken.


Ten [10] blank pages.

… – page 1 – … – page 2 – … – page 3 – … – page 4 – … – page 5 –
… –
page 6 – … – page 7 – … –page  8 – … – page 9 – … – page 10 –

Really I turned in 10 blank pages = silence as the primary component of content.
All printed on translucent amber colored vellum.


I. Silence defined

II. The significance of silence for the creative

Screeners. Nonscreeners.

Nonscreeners require periods of silence. Entering the empty space of silences facilitates an external screening mechanism for the nonscreener.

This line of research has given me a coherent explanation for understanding my marriage. My husband is a screener; I am a nonscreener. We are of equal intelligence, yet our acquisition of information, processing and output are in opposition, as marriages often are. My husband, Jim, is a 100% unadulterated screener. He is incredibly book smart, has a great retention and retrieval system, as well as, a good sense of the application of his knowledge. He is a high functioning individual in the normalcy of Kuhnian theory. He is focused. When he is on task, whether physical or mental, he screens out all extraneous stimuli. He is unarousable by physical, auditory or visual stimuli. I have tested this extensively. Speaking directly to him, waving my hand in front of his face, and beating him up side the head (metaphorically), all is to no avail. He is not overly aroused by increased intensity or frequency of extraneous sensory stimuli, visual, touch, or otherwise [admittedly temperature was never tested]. He is a screener. If the stimuli actually arouses him from his task, it appears as the slightest intrusion, it quickly dissipates and he returns to his previous activity. His nervous system is considered to be functioning at its full capacity. He is a screener.

On the other hand, my intelligence lies in the area of making connections between seemingly unrelated things. Memory retention and retrieval is not my strength. I take everything in, intelligible sound, unintelligible noise, smells, pressure, texture, visual stimuli, symbols, patterns, etc. It is all sensed and my brain attempts to store, collate and connect all this data. Often it is overloaded and the intruding stimuli distracts me from my task. Overt screening on my part leads to fatigue, and I am unable to focus on a complex task. I am a nonscreener; my nervous system does not mute extraneous stimuli.

Think about your butt. When you sit down you are aware of sitting—the temperature of the chair, its texture, the pressure of your mass impacted by gravity and the opposing force of the chair, the comfort of your back, legs, etc. If your nervous systems is working correctly this information, which is initially needed to confirm the act of sitting, quickly becomes unnecessary and your nervous system begins to disregard these signals emanating from your ass. You are screening the superfluous stimuli which might otherwise arouse your attention. If you were constantly aware of your ass as you were trying to concentrate on a conversation or enjoying the fine cuisine you were consuming, you would be highly distracted and unable to focus on the task at hand. Eventually you are aroused by your ass when the blood flow is negatively impacted, at which point your butt (via your nervous system) stimulates the consciousness part of your brain and you move, restoring blood flow and you begin screening again.

The nonscreener constantly collect a multiplicity of data through their senses. Their brain is aroused by all these details; it manages this data and attempts to screen the superfluous. The conscious attempts at screening result in fatigue and an inability to focus on complex tasks, tasks that require parallel thinking or behavior.

So what! I know, I know. Ok already! This paper is on silence and creativity, so why all this crap about me and my husband, nonscreener and screener?

Research shows that nonscreeners, those individuals who have a wide breadth of attention, are the creatives.

Individuals whose breadth of attention is chronically narrow [screener] focus on a relatively small range of stimuli at anyone time and tend to filter extraneous or irrelevant stimuli…In contrast, individual whose breadth of attention is chronically wide [nonscreeners] focus on a larger range of stimuli…and are affected more strongly by their environment. – Albert Mehrabian 

He was entranced by sensory impressions—smells, noises, sights…

– Gardner on T.S. Eliot 

Creative performance is associated with a chronically wide breadth of attention.

Whether poetry is the fusion of contradictory ideas…or the result of emotional irritation and tensions…it is not a day dream…Let us admit at once that a poet is something like a radio aerial—he is capable of receiving messages on waves of some sort; but he is more than an aerial, for he possesses the capacity of transmuting these messages into those patterns of words we call poems.
It would seem that a scientific definition of a poet might put it something like this: a man of an extraordinarily sensitive and active subconscious personality, fed by, and feeding, a non-resistant consciousness…the external stimulus…

Amy Lowell (Ghiselin) 

It is the marvelous capacity to grasp two mutually distant realities without going beyond the field of our experience and to draw a spark from their juxtaposition; to bring within reach of our sense abstract forms capable of the same intensity and enhancement as any others; and, depriving us of any system of reference, to set us at odds with our memories. Max Ernst (Ghiselin) 

Creative performance is facilitated by a wide range of stimuli. Irrelevant arousal, though, has been shown to impair performance. Arousal is increased by crowding, evaluation apprehension, time pressure, presence of other, and frustration, as well as noise.

Kant wrote a treatise on The Vital Powers. I should prefer to write a dirge for them. The superabundant display of vitality, which takes the form of knocking, hammering, and tumbling things about, has proved a daily torment to me all my life long. There are people, it is true — nay, a great many people — who smile at such things, because they are not sensitive to noise; but they are just the very people who are not sensitive to argument, or thought, or poetry, or art, in a word, to any kind of intellectual influence. The reason of it is that the tissue of their brains is of a very rough and coarse quality. On the other hand, noise is a torture to intellectual people. In the biographies of almost all great writers, or wherever else their personal utterances are recorded, I find complaints about it; in the case of Kant, for instance, Goethe, Lichtenberg, Jean Paul; and if it should happen that any writer has omitted to express himself on the matter, it is only for want of opportunity. 

This aversion to noise I should explain as follows: If you cut up a large diamond into little bits, it will entirely lose the value it had as a whole; and an army divided up into small bodies of soldiers, loses all its strength. So a great intellect sinks to the level of an ordinary one, as soon as it is interrupted and disturbed, its attention distracted and drawn off from the matter in hand; for its superiority depends upon its power of concentration — of bringing all its strength to bear upon one theme, in the same way as a concave mirror collects into one point all the rays of light that strike upon it. Noisy interruption is a hindrance to this concentration. That is why distinguished minds have always shown such an extreme dislike to disturbance in any form, as something that breaks in upon and distracts their thoughts. Above all have they been averse to that violent interruption that comes from noise. Ordinary people are not much put out by anything of the sort. The most sensible and intelligent of all nations in Europe lays down the rule, Never Interrupt! as the eleventh commandment. Noise is the most impertinent of all forms of interruption. Of course, where there is nothing to interrupt, noise will not be so particularly painful. Occasionally it happens that some slight but constant noise continues to bother and distract me for a time before I become distinctly conscious of it. All I feel is a steady increase in the labor of thinking — just as though I were trying to walk with a weight on my foot. Arthur Schopenhauer 

Sound is stimuli, specifically unpredictable noise and intelligible noise; it arouses. Silence generates an artificial screen; it creates a space into which the artist may enter, where extraneous irrelevant stimuli is removed. In this space they can access low-frequency complex, thoughts/ideas/connections, those things that whisper in the backs of their minds. Silence is empty space. It is a passage into knowing, being, and becoming. 

III. Inferred silence in Gardner & Ghiselin’s texts

Walking silence

That day I was walking through the woods beside Lake Silvaplana; I halted not far from Surlei, beside a huge, towering, pyramidal rock. It was there that the idea came to me. Friedrich Nietzsche (Ghiselin)

When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer—say, traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly…All this fires my soul.
Wolfgang Amadeous Mozart (Ghiselin) 

Writing silence

…in the afternoon I have time to unwind and to write… Sigmund Freud 

He saw patients for eight to nine hours a day, took a daily constitutional, maintained ties with friends…and colleagues, read literature, collected antiquities, and wrote almost every night from eleven o’clock to one or two in the morning.
Gardner on Freud 

Sleepless silence

…I was sick and tired of writing, when one morning, after having slept poorly, I woke with a start and witnessed, as from a seat in a theater, three acts which brought to life an epoch and characters about which I had no documentary information and which I regarded moreover as forbidding. Long afterward. I succeeded in writing the play and I divined the circumstances that must have served to incite me. Jean Cocteau (Ghiselin)

…induced one of those dreams between sleeping and waking…Now my curiosity was roused and excited and I began an impartial exploration, making use of every kind of material that happed to come into my field of vision…
Max Ernst (Ghiselin) 

IV. Conclusion

Writing is about silence.

Silence creates an empty space into which I may enter, a place where change may be instigated. Silence is a loud space filled with life, filled with questions, a place to explore pain and delight, future and failure, a place to dream where sense and nonsense become irrelevant and connected. It is a place where words fall away and the objects infinite possibilities are reclaimed. It is a space I want to enter into, be enveloped, comforted. I dissect my transparent assumptions about the nature of existence in this safe haven. I learn to connect to people and events more deeply, to be more attentive, alert, to live more richly. Not the richness of stuff but that of the fullness of life. But, the pleasure of fullness comes from emptiness and the process of filling which requires an openness in space in which to impart that filling.
Silence is this space and I enter it through writing.


The mirror to which I hear
[appendix A: in the empty space that proceeds Sleep]

In that moment before sleep 
It is myself that I chase 
with hidden hope unrealized 
putting on other to find self 
push me pull me swallowing the trail 
significance denied but sought 
not smart enough or talented enough 
beautiful enough or witty enough 

the hope that a secret grandeur resides 

within is pushed below the surface 
and I skim across this placid self 
the mirror to which I hear 
glass pressed close 
eyes shut tight 
it burns me

In silence, I open myself
[appendix B: in the empty space of Making]

I trust the process—research, collective critical analysis, emergent forms from visceral object making, alternate views that manifest themselves via found objects, questioning my assumptions about the nature of things, and daily writing.

In silence, I disentangle coagulated knowledge and experience.
In silence, I bite my tongue, still my brain, and listen.
In silence, I sweat make.
In silence, I collect.
In silence, I become transparent.
In silence, I write.

But most importantly I have found that if I force myself to remain open, open to alternate views, open to outside direction, I learn. To learn requires me to make mistakes, to be wrong. By allowing for failure, attempting to not avoid that which hurts, I am able to explore new things in that illusive space where sense and nonsense become interchangeable and comprehensible. Often this type of experimentation surprisingly produces something quite coherent. Silent openness also allows me to recognize the herd (the mechanical, human drone-state which avoids painful mental, physical, and social conflict resulting in a deadening of the potentiality for change (as noted by David, fellow student, in his presentation)) and to navigate to its outer edges. I cannot avoid the herd (I am the herd); I cannot avoid culture (I am my culture). But on the skirts of the herd, where there is silence, my movement and exploration is less hampered by cultural dictates; more options are available to me; my assumptions become more transparent. Openness, even when everything within me screams “NO!,” improves me. Without it, I would remain the same. And what a boring life that would be.

[appendix C: in the empty space of Writing]

I step to the edge of change and wavier there until my own demons pull me back. No. I choose to follow them back. I give myself over. Change is SCREAMING to me and I know it is what I need, what I want. What I CRAVE!
Simultaneously, the lure of safe sameness calls to me, beckoning me back from the edge, yet I find that my toes curl tightly to this edge. I am stretched, torn, yet, I am not returning to the safe sameness! I will process the fear, redirect it. I am not beating my head on the same wall, or at least it looks different, feels different…is different?
What is not different are the demons. They are not new. Every time I step into/toward change, they approach me­—steal my thoughts, riveting them on old fears. I require, demand, to push through, not to give in, NOT TO BE SAFE.
I have chosen not to dream, but now they break over me in a rushing onslaught. Not the dream of sleep have I fled, but the dream of future-casting. And now I taste the dream rolling across the back of my tongue and it scares the hell out of me!

Friedrich Nietzsche: Composition of Thus Spake Zarathustra
[appendix D: in the empty space of the Text]

[appendix E: in the empty space of Analysis]

In the silence of nonsilence
[appendix F: in the empty space of an Experiment Gone Wrong]

Rereading student responses from our class silence experiment, an apparent abysmal failure, I actually find some common denominators:

  1. sensual response to environment
  2. arousal in the form of anger at the mechanical and human noise intrusions 
  3. order of thought processes; contemplation of time, environment, mental
  4. (assuming screening occurred)
    fragmentation of thought process spurred by various nonsexual sensual arousal (nonscreening)

Those that chose not to participate did so out of fear of assumed expectations. They made note of feeling both manipulated and fear of being unable to meet the creativity criteria (which was never stated). Research (Long & Averill) indicates immature or fear-driven personalities will actually wither in silence, because the mind focuses on “other” and on the self’s inabilities to meet assumed external demands. This matched up with behaviors I observed in class of the nonparticipatants.

Additionally, the incredibly noisy area I chose for the experiment only reinforced my understanding of the research in regards to breadth of attention, arousal, and the ability to concentrate.


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1 Response

  1. admittedly this was written in another era of my life–based on present tense of interrelationships (though it is a kind of foreshadowing) and my need to label certain functions of human data processing as right or good inferring others are less than desirable.

    reading it 7 years in retrospect perhaps I will rewrite. definitely see unnecessary repetition as well as statements that need stronger support.

    not once in grad school did I submit a paper to an art historian or otherwise using the mla format–manifesto for the futurist…dsm diagnostic manual for handful of surrealist…the game of chess for Duchamp…food eating metaphor for Greenberg…humor for feminism…Not once was I penalized for it; in fact I was repeatedly rewarded and more importantly each paper peaked their curiosity so there were all kinds of positive expletives and questions han written through the papers etc. mla is for those who need a format because frankly they are going to write a boring college art history regurgitory paper anyway. how is that for judgmental on my part. perhaps it is that I am about to sit down and read about 65 research papers adhering to the mla format.