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Searching for Silence

The perfect writing environment

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

In my mid-twenties I used to try a thought experiment – quite a morbid one – last thing at night before sleep. I projected forward to the end of my life and looked back, trying to identify the one thing I regretted more than anything else. This wasn’t particularly logical, of course – how could I know the things I would miss out on and the mistakes I’d make? – but I convinced myself the answer lay in writing: If I never made a proper, sustained attempt at writing, it would torment me. I told myself it had to be now, I had to make a real commitment. And this would involve making some changes to my life. Firstly, I could no longer work full-time — I barely had time to read, let alone write. This meant I would have to find a cheaper place to live. I moved to Leith and found half an average-sized room partitioned with a thin plywood wall. It was cold and loud. I heard my flatmate’s every move through the partition. Sirens and smashed glass spilled through the night. But none of this mattered; the important thing was that I could write.

I couldn’t write. I couldn’t sleep. The noise, the restlessness, the sense of invasion from the street and adjoining rooms. It was clear to me, even then, at the start, that this wasn’t a good life. My health was poor, I didn’t see anyone, I was dangerously isolated. I was completely dissociated from almost everything I did. This was supposed to be a strategic sacrifice, a short-term measure, but it wasn’t working out. I couldn’t focus, couldn’t find the necessary space to write. Everything got on top of me. Time hurtled forward, and I achieved nothing.

Something had to change. But rather than making the obvious, sensible decision – trying to live with a sense of proportion – I went in the opposite direction and doubled down. I was convinced the problem was noise, and that the key to turning everything around was silence. In silence I could focus, take stock, and finally write. Finding a sufficiently quiet space would push away all the distractions of unhappiness and at last I would produce something. This pursuit would go on to dictate my life for the next fifteen years.

I went to the city’s main reference library every evening after my retail job. On days off I put in double sessions, walking home in the early afternoon for an enormous bowl of pasta before making the steep climb back. I spent most of the time in those first years reading rather than writing — going through the reference stacks almost indiscriminately, picking up whatever interested me and learning more than I ever had at university. The routine was helpful and purposeful, the building beautiful and ornate, and I enjoyed being part of a quiet community of eccentric researchers and writers. One regular in the reference room wore a mining helmet and headlamp, and as he pored over his tomes I imagined he was excavating down, drilling into unbelievable material.

Things were a little better, but they were still not right. I had to go further. The reason I wasn’t producing anything was that my surroundings were not quiet enough. And so I did two things: I began looking for better libraries, and I started wearing earplugs.

Soon I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t think, couldn’t read – and certainly couldn’t write – without earplugs. I got little foam pairs from the pharmacy, bright orange so you could identify them when they became lost in the bed sheets. I don’t know how much noise they actually cancelled, but they gave me the privacy I craved, and which I was convinced would allow me finally to write. I wore them in my room and in the libraries too. I ascribed powers to them far beyond anything they merited. Slotting them into my ear canals was an instant route to concentration. I carried them everywhere, my crutch, my mobile solitude. I began using them far longer than recommended. When I eventually moved to new, less chaotic accommodation, I didn’t think of discarding them. If I made progress in my writing, I thought, then it was partly down to the earplugs, bringing me closer to the silence I required.

By this stage I tended to write in Edinburgh University’s main library. I say ‘write,’ but that wasn’t all I did. For the first thirty minutes or so of every session I circled the floors, hunting down the best possible seat, a place of such solitude and remoteness that no sound would ever enter, and where at last I would have unfettered access to what I wanted to say. But when I did finally sit down, I was tormented by the thought that I had given up the search too easily, that if I had just continued a little longer I might have found the perfect, mythical location. This was a period when my most significant communication was with students I asked to be quiet. (My heart rate soared as I did this, and it took some time to reach equanimity again, which of course undermined the whole intervention). Once, to my shame, I shushed a librarian.

I can see now that my obsessive pursuit of silence was partly about not writing. It was something to do instead of writing, and it excused my poor results. If my writing disappointed me, it was only because I hadn’t yet found the conditions I needed to produce it. Searching for silence was a cheat, a deferral, a way of never accepting the limitations of what I could do. The perfect silent space does not and cannot exist.

Another irony is that my obsessive and reckless overuse of earplugs probably damaged my hearing. Earplugs don’t remove noise, they substitute it, flooding your ears with the damp sea-sound of pressed air or a higher pitched, post-gig whining. The sound is still there when I’m earplug free, imperceptible to anyone else in the world. It’s a comfort, a carapace, and, admittedly, it does serve the earplugs’ original purpose: helping me reach concentration in a single step.

If my first novel somehow arose from such wildly unpromising circumstances, then my second came from a more dramatic attempt to find the perfect writing place. I uprooted myself, twice travelling more than 5000 miles in a desperate attempt to optimally ‘focus’. (In moving to Latin America, I had simply scaled up my long walks through the library hunting the best seat.) I only completed the second book when I returned to Scotland, moving to a sleepy village where I woke every day at five a.m. so I could have hours to myself before the street woke up.

Then the pandemic arrived. One of the curious things about lockdown was that I learned silence wasn’t what I wanted at all. I craved noise. The value in silence is what it amplifies. I noticed the blackbirds singing in major key; the starlings’ high-pitched electric warbling; the thud of waves against the beach at high tide. And I found that, now isolation had been forced upon me, I missed people. Rather than being apprehensive about the noise returning, I felt optimistic, even excited. I needed other voices, wanted volatility and unpredictability in my life again. Silence for me – my overarching aim these past fifteen years – was compromised. I was ambivalent about the work I had produced, and whether the sacrifices entailed could ever be justified. Though I would still wear my earplugs at my desk, I would have to find a different way to write, and to live.

Martin MacInnes’s debut, Infinite Ground (2016) won the Somerset Maugham Award. Gathering Evidence (2020) led to his inclusion in The National Centre for Writing/British Council’s list of writers shaping the UK’s future. In Ascension will be published in 2023.

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