Georgia Sparling: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Each week, we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life. My name is Georgia Sparling, and today I'm speaking with Jane Brox. Jane is a creative nonfiction author of five books including Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, and this year's Silence, a social history of one of the least understood elements of our lives.
She's also written a number of essays and publications such as The New York Times and The Harvard Review and The New Yorker. She also teaches in our MFA in Creative Writing program. Jane, thanks so much for being here today. Welcome to the podcast.
Jane Brox: Thank you, Georgia. It's a pleasure to be here.
Georgia: I'd love to start with you reading a paragraph from your latest book Silence.
Jane: "Silence can seem like a luxury or the front world has labeled it that way. But from what I know of it, I would argue that silence is as necessary as the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech that we so carefully guard and endlessly ponder, for it affirms the meaning of speech, even as it provides a path to inner life to beauty and observation and appreciation. It presents the opportunity for a true reckoning with the self with external obligation and with power."
Georgia: Thank you. That was such a profound paragraph. Especially, I think silence can seem like such a luxury in our current world, especially if you live in a city, it's almost impossible to find. In your book, you look at two intentional types of silence. One being Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary that was created in the 1800s and designed to reform prisoners through silence. Then also at Thomas Merton, who was an American monk who lived at an abbey called Gethsemani in Kentucky.
This is an unexpected juxtaposition, a monk versus a penitentiary system. Where did the germ of this idea come from?
Jane: Well, actually, I had been thinking about the book as far back as 2001 when I visited a monastery in the south of France called Senanque, which I refer to in the book. It was just afternoon visit with some friends, but I was so struck by the place itself, by the architecture intentionally built for silence and each room built for a different kind of silence that it just really took my breath away.
We went back that night and sat throughout the service of Vespers. Even the sound of chanting seemed to increase this feeling of the silence within the service. But I didn't know how to write about it. I didn't know enough and for years, I carried the hope with me. It wasn't until, I would say, seven or eight years ago that I visited Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which is now a stabilized ruin.
I walked down one of the corridors and was peering into the cells, which were so much like the monastic cell. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that I could write a book that oscillates between these two extremes. By exploring them, I could explore the whole idea of silence, which is so abstract, that I didn't know how to write about it in its abstraction, but I could write about it in terms of the way it played out in these concrete architectures.
Georgia: That's so interesting. What drew you to Thomas Merton? Was it just because he's a US-based example of a classic life?
Jane: I had been reading Thomas Merton off and on for 40 years. [laughs] [crosstalk] I encountered him in college. I didn't want him to be the focal point of the book at first or the monastic part of the book at first. I just went to him because I knew him, and I thought that would be a good launching place. He was so articulate about silence and his experience of silence was so complex and both of the monastery and of the world that I thought I wouldn't be able to find a richer example. So I just ran with Thomas Merton. [laughs]
Georgia: It was great. Well, it inspired me because I have The Seven Storey Mountain, his bestseller on my bookshelf. It's been one of the things I want to read this year, so I'm even more inspired to do that.
Jane: I will say actually, the other thing that I remembered when I went back to read The Seven Storey Mountain and the other books was he was also a beautiful writer. Any writer could learn a lot from just the sentences, Thomas Merton’s sentences. It's beautiful.
Georgia: I'll get there.
Georgia: Would you tell us a little more about Eastern State Penitentiary because I doubt many people listening have even heard of it. Well, just what the concept of it was.
Jane: It began really in the post-revolutionary era in Philadelphia. Benjamin Rush, who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and a prominent physician in Philadelphia, had an idea for prison reform. This is very much in the air in Philadelphia. It was a very different world back then, in the 18th century, of punishment. Punishment was immediate and visceral. People were hung or branded or whipped.
The jails were not for long confinements, they were for temporary quarters until you were tried or let go. They were all very chaotic and dirty. Everybody was in one room and there were no meals provided and no bedding provided often. I say that just to set the atmosphere against which this idea for the penitentiary rose. Benjamin Rush, he based it on the idea of monastic silence and believed that given the chance, these offenders put in a cell and forced into silence and solitude with spiritual advisors coming to see them would find their way to reformation and they would find their way back into the community.
They would leave the prison and the community would embrace them, and they would become a well-reputed citizen again. Of course, I think he never took into account the distressing wages of such a sentence for almost everybody.
Georgia: Totally wrong. Well, it's interesting too. You get into this a little bit in the book but there's still solitary confinement now and it's so detrimental to people who are in there for any long period of time. Yet, we still haven't learned the lesson.
Jane: I know, it's hard. It really began with Eastern State. Eastern State opened in 1829. In the 19th century, the sentence of silence and solitude was meted out as punishment. In today prison system, nobody is sentenced to silence and solitude. It's a punishment within punishment, which is even worse because no judge has handed this down. There’s no prescribed time for it and it is arbitrary often as to who's put in solitary.
Solitary is not silent anymore. It's just as noisy as regular prison. It's just as devastating. Noisy or silent, it's just as devastating for the men and women who are confined there.
Georgia: It was interesting, one of the examples that you talked about in your book was somebody who, because he misbehaved at Eastern State, his job privileges were taken away. They did work on things and different projects. Even that they were not allowed to speak to anybody.
When this guy had it taken away, he, within days was begging to have a job back. Just how important even that little bit of distraction was to the people there.
Jane: It seems true all through time. That structure and purpose remain really important for any. The people who survive this silence and solitude best are the ones who figure out some kind of regimen to get them through the day. A lot of the early prisoners valued work. Even in contemporary solitary, prisoners who have a regimen of exercise, a regimen of reading, just to mark the time, to mark a day as a day rather than have it just be without any kind of structure at all.
Georgia: As I said before, silence can be really hard for 21st century Westerners. Not only to find silence but even to be comfortable in it. You wrote in your book, "Silence doesn't keep pace with the world. It has nothing to add to material gain nor to the clamor of daily life." It's like it doesn't really factor into our economy. I was wondering, could you talk a little bit about that aspect of silence?
Jane: Yes. It's interesting how silence is also I think attached to time in a funny way. We're such a time-conscious society but when you enter into silence-- In fact, the prisoners were the extreme example of this. When you enter into silence, you lose track of time and that's one of its purposes, say, in the monastery is this kind of idea of luxury of time just open in which you can wait, and in which you can invite inquiry, and in which you let things happen to you, or you inquire into that silence. It's an open time and open space.
I feel increasingly, most of us are much less comfortable with that than people have been in the past. It only seems to be more so as we go along. Even in my little neighborhood in Maine, I realize that noise will always out. Sound will always win out. People don't think twice about making noise, and any noise can interfere with silence. You're at the mercy of everybody else's desires to make noise. You have to find a way.
There's a way, I think, to also make peace within yourself in order to block out that noise. Thomas Merton, when he was granted a hermitage, one of the striking sentences he said was, "The tractors in the bottoms would have bothered me a year ago. The sound of it doesn't bother me now." I think he had accustomed himself to silence so much that he was able to override sound. I love the John Cage quote that says, "Silence is not acoustic. It's a change of mind, a turning around." It's not the sound. It's interior. Silence is interior.
Georgia: Finding silence is a war with yourself. [laugh] [crosstalk] Your own thoughts and your ability to control where your mind goes, which is not easy. [laughs] What is missing, do you think, when we don't have silence or don't set aside that time to be quiet?
Jane: I feel silence is the way to your interior life. I can only speak really of my own experience. When I think about what I gain from silence is I gain-- . It's a prospect from which to look at my life as a whole, to question my life, to question my decisions, to find some kind of amplitude in my life, to find out what's beautiful and significant in it and what's not. I think without just that open time of silence, we become closer to automatons than humans. If we don't have any measure of that, then how do we know who we are.
Georgia: You quoted a historian, I think his last name is Le Goff, who was talking about how the advent of clocks and synchronizing time between cities as-- it became more important for people to all be on the same page as far as what time it was. That time became a "chronological net in which urban life was caught." Time and time, we got trapped in this system, and then it seemed like it was controlling us instead of us controlling it. How do you find silence? What do you do to cultivate that in your own life?
Jane: For me, I think it's been a 40-year process because it's entirely necessary for my writing life to have a measure of silence. I couldn't have a writing life without it. In my early days, trying to write poems in between working at a bakery or at a bookstore, I would get up an hour early. I remember this and just spend an hour writing, just an hour a day. I remember I was 25 or 26. If the day got fraught or I was just really bored with my job or something like that, I would think back to that hour. It was almost like a secret I carried with me through the day, and it gave me a little bit of strength, and I said, "Tomorrow I'll have that hour again." I worked to try to make it a regular thing.
As time has gone on, and writing has taken up more and more of my life, then I think writing, it makes its own time. It's just that time for silence and for work, not all my time in silence is for work, has just grown and become really more of a central part of my life.
Georgia: It's a discipline.
Jane: When I think of Thomas Merton, for instance, silences also can be a form of protest. It's like taking yourself out of what society expects of you. I think it's also a place where you can grow to appreciate both speech, friendship, society in silence. You can't have one without the other, I think. Speech is nothing without silence. Even though our friends aren't with us, we think about our friends in silence and that gives our friendship an amplitude that it might not have if we only knew our friends without that reflection on our friendship.
Georgia: There was the woman in the book, I can't remember her name, but took an intentional period of silence and then felt that actually made all of her relationships more rich because she needed that time away, which I thought was--
Jane: Doris Grumbach in Fifty Days of Solitude, that's her book. I was going to say even Thomas Merton said, "My silence isn't for myself alone. It's for other human beings." He thought their silence was a way to actually enhance the lives of other people around them, that it can spread out from the center and help others.
Georgia: Speaking of Merton, and you mentioned this before, that he asked the monastery to create a hermitage outback for him because when he came, he just thought he'd be like all the other monks. Then his book got so popular, and he was in such demand to be a teacher, that then there wasn't even silence at the monastery for him. He had to even retreat beyond that. He also was silenced in a way because he was writing about the Vietnam War and different things like that and some of the powers that be, and the Catholic Church didn't want him to publish that.
He was surreptitiously trying to get some essays out under pseudonyms and stuff, but I thought it was really interesting about the nuances of silence that you talked about in the book. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that and how those different nuances came to you.
Jane: I think Merton's life was-- why I chose it is because as I read more about him, his silence was so complex because not only was he a monk in the monastery, he was also a very social person. He loved to talk. He loved to jazz. He loved being in clubs. Silence wasn't-- he loved it. He longed for it, but he also drew people to him. There were people always coming for retreat. He also felt that impulse to speak and to write. He wrote quite a bit. He wrote he wasn't going to be silenced about the war or about nuclear arms, so he spoke out about that and wrote about that.
His take was very complex, especially in relation to someone like Philip Berrigan, who was on the street protesting and burning draft cards. He wasn't going along with that, but he felt it important to speak out. Silence has all these sides and all these turnings. Really, there could be 100 different words for what we call silence. They're so different. There's aggressive being silenced. There's the silence that is oral, just heard. There's the silence when people's voices are shuttered. That's another kind of silence. Even within the imposed and the voluntary, there a million different nuances of silence.
I think silence at every point possesses both the capacity to enhance our lives and to be voluntary, but can also just bleed into something imposed and stifling.
Georgia: Even the women that you mention-- because there's a section that is focused on female prisoners and women in the monastic life. What struck me was, I think it was a group of nuns in Italy who the pope had taken away their ability to go and do ministry in their city. They were helping the poor and the sick and doing the things that you would assume they were called to do, but then it was assumed that they couldn't be trusted being out on their own. They were shuttered. It was just heartbreaking to me. [laughs] The city was like, "No, please we want them to be a part of the community."
Jane: But the hierarchy, the power that stood over their lives just said they were feeling that women were-- so they wanted to reign in the lives of women a bit more. It's very strange. There was the monastery in France that I talked about in the Middle Ages where the women were actually in very poor circumstances and crowded into this very meager monastery and then when given the chance to leave, they chose to stay, many of them.
I think they had formed within the confines of their life, they found some kind of richness or some kind of safety or community. You have to consider that within the circumstances of most women's lives at that time too, which were-
Georgia: Pretty restricted.
Jane: -very restricted especially single women.
Georgia: You wrote in the acknowledgments that silence took-- you said, "Silence took many years to write and the process is often bewildering." What do you mean by that?
Jane: Well, I started out knowing so little and I still don't. I would say I'm not even an expert at the end of it. I wrote this very specific book on silence. I hardly know everything about silence but it was also, I would say the shape of the book owes more to poetry than to narrative in some way because I kept thinking-- my previous book Brilliant was really a march through time. I just followed the light as it got brighter and brighter through time.
This book was not about something proceeding through time so much as the ideas in the penitentiary and the monastery working off each other. I kept having these two separate strands of thought and research running, and I said, "I have to figure out a way to bring them together." I just kept trying to stitch them together in different ways and finally, eight months or so before the book was due, I began to see how to do that. That I could, say, for instance, talk about night in the monastery at the end of one section and begin the next section on night in the penitentiary, and then the two nights would form a transition from one to the other.
I looked for ways for the monastery to bleed into the penitentiary and the penitentiary to bleed into the monastery. I had no narrative guide much of the way.
Georgia: There was a million things you could have written about in examples.
Jane: And I kept testing to take myself to task and say, "You're not writing everything about silence. You're writing about this." Otherwise, it would just become chaos.
Georgia: Right, it would be volume one and then volume two. Let's shift to talking a little bit more about your writing. What drew you to become a nonfiction author specifically?
Jane: Well, it's kind of funny. I got a master's degree in poetry, and I started writing poetry and then once I finished graduate school, I had these prose poems about my family's farm in Massachusetts where I'd grown up. The farm was at a critical point, and I actually decided to go back there after graduate school and help out on the farm. I had my own house, but I worked with my father on the farm. I wanted to tell the story of the farm because it felt very important to me.
It felt like the end of an era in that part of the world, and I knew it wasn't lyric. I knew it was a story. I knew it was narrative, and I did not want to write a narrative poem so I just started writing narrative and that became-- and they were really prose poems for a long time. In fact, I'll tell you the book that was accepted for publication at Beacon Press here and nowhere else was 80 pages of prose poems. Then my editor said, "Well, you know it has to be twice as long."
Georgia: Gulp, gulp.
Jane: I said, "Of course, I know that."
Georgia: Yes, I totally knew that.
Jane: When I went home and after the terror dissipated a bit, I realized that I couldn't ask a reader to read 160 pages of prose poem, stopping and starting, stopping and starting, that I would have to find a narrative thread of some kind to go through the book. I started to build that narrative thread. It was a great learning process for me. It really was just thinking about the reader and following the reader through. I stumbled into prose, and I stumbled into nonfiction, and I haven't looked back.
Georgia: Will you talk a little bit about your research process because for this book, I can imagine it being really tough because you do go all the way to-- or at least the text goes all the way from a Russian Gulag to Pennsylvania and from the Middle Ages to the present day. There's any number of places and things you could have studied up on.
Jane: Right. A lot of it is just beginning in one place and it's almost like dropping a stone in a still pond. Reading about Eastern State led me to other things and led me to other things in relation to other things. Then problems in the book led me places. For instance, I knew I could follow Thomas Merton through his story but Charles Williams, the first prisoner at Eastern State, is lost to history after his two years. I thought, "Well, I can't just leave the experience of the prisoners up in the air," and I thought "What could I do?"
I said, "Well, the experience of solitary confinement has been the same throughout time," and it was astonished, so I just looked for other people who had written about that experience. I found Eugenia Ginzburg's story of the Gulag and incredibly articulate. Her cell, it was astonishing for me to read that her cell was virtually the same size as Charles Williams. I could speculate that his experience, while different, was not radically different in size.
Georgia: There are a lot of parallels.
Jane: Charles Williams could read. What that meant, we don't know. It could mean that he could read a newspaper or something like that or write his name or couldn't have meant more, we don't know that. Eugenia Ginzburg was extremely literate and that helped her survive, and I tried to make that point in the book as well. The problems in the book, it leads you to look for solutions. That's part of that research and just working out from the centers, and it has to be haphazard.
The poet Seamus Heaney has a beautiful line in one of his poems and he talks about, "Gallons of wash for the pure drop." That you have to go wide and far to know what you really need. You can't really, especially for the first years of work on a book, you can't limit yourself. That can happen at the end where you're working to hone thing. But to begin with ideas of limiting yourself, I think limits the book.
Georgia: Was it important for you to visit a few of the sites that you talked about? Obviously, you went to the penitentiary in Philadelphia, but were there other places that you went?
Jane: I went to Senanque. I did not have inexhaustible funds. I wish I could have gone to Kentucky to see Thomas Merton hermitage but, also, I think that's awfully overrun by pilgrims now, so I don't know what-- I stayed at a monastery in Wrentham, Massachusetts, a Trappistine monastery, nuns. I went through their day, went to all the services in the day, and I had a beautiful hour's talk with one of the nuns about what silence meant to her in her life. I revisited the monastery in Senanque in France because my brother happens to live not far from there.
Georgia: That works.
Jane: I went to visit my brother, and we returned to the monastery so I could see it again. I think it's important because both places gave me a sense of-- both, visiting the monastery and the penitentiary. I couldn't have written the book without it. It would've been abstract in a way without that. I didn't feel I had to see Merton specific hermitage, but I had to see a monastery somewhere.
Georgia: Some of your essays, especially the ones that have come out recently, are more in the memoir genre, whereas Silence and Brilliance are focused on a concept. What is it that appeals to you about taking a concept and looking at it versus writing a biography on somebody interesting?
Jane: My own trajectory as a writer, I started out writing personal narrative. My first three books began as my personal experience of my family farm and that runs through the three books, but each book became progressively more researched. As I talked about the experience of farming in the Merrimack Valley, then I talked about farming and industry in the Merrimack Valley, which my mother's side of the family came and worked in the mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts. I had both of those sides in my history.
In the third book Clearing Land, I talked about New England agriculture in relation to the larger structure of American agriculture. I was increasingly becoming more and more research-based in my work and then Brilliant was really an attempt to get out of the farm. I said, "If I'm going to continue as a writer, I think I've played out my hand with the writing about the farm. So, I want to try to write a book."
Every writer has their own journey through life, but I said, "Maybe I'll try to write a book without the first person in it." I landed on the story of light because of rural electrification, which was a part of my father's story. I was jumping off from the last-- I was on the last little ledge of--
The agricultural world jumping into the world about light. In a funny way, Silence, it's on the same trajectory in our lives as light and darkness. We're a culture that's moved from darkness into extreme light from silence to noise. It's interesting they have their parallels but now, I feel like I want to go back. I want to see what happens when I return to a more personal narrative now, so I feel like that's the next step for me. I don't know if it'll be entirely personal, but the pieces in The New Yorker that had been recent had been an opportunity for me to start doing that and I'm hoping to do some more of that which may lead me into the-- I haven't yet settled on the next book.
Georgia: That was in my next question.
Jane: Well, I have an idea that I may write something about how single women inhabit their homes because I'm a single woman with a house. That would start out as very personal but also look at the experience of other women, but that's just really in the beginning stages right now.
Georgia: I was curious too, in Silence, how you decided when to interject yourself? Obviously, you're writing the whole thing and it's clearly something you're interested in, but there were a few times throughout the book where it felt very much like your own personal thought, your own personal conclusion about something. Then at the end, you do have a more personal moment there. How did you decide when you would be--?
Jane: It's kind of funny. I was running with my hunches a lot of the time. I can't tell you how much of a hunch writer I am.
Georgia: That's great.
Jane: But I also wanted-- I'll go back to Brilliant. In writing that book, I wanted to create a narrative voice that did not have a first-person in it but was still warm because I wanted somebody to pick up the book in the evening and read it. I didn't want it to be--
Jane: --clinical in a book. I think in Silence, I felt that same way. That I wanted to be telling the story, but I wanted it to have some personal slant. I realized somewhere that visiting these places like Eastern State meant so much to me that I had to put my experience of walking through them there. I think that's why the “I” jumps in now and again. I wrestled with that: is there enough of an “I?" Does it seem arbitrary at some point or surprising at some point? I don't think that question can ever be answered. It's not a formula. I put it in where it could use the "I" to bring the story forward.
Georgia: You said you're potentially working on a new book?
Georgia: Do you feel like you always have to have something going? Does it always have to be a book, or can you be writing essays and feels satisfied with that?
Jane: I feel very differently about my writing life now than I did 40 years ago. 40 years ago, when I finished my first book-- well that wasn't 40 years ago. Say, in the early 1990s. I felt as if the stone had rolled all the way back down the hill. I didn't know where to go and I was almost desperate to latch on to something else. I don't feel that at all now. After having written five books, I feel a little confident that things will come and if I write essays for a while, I think that's perfectly fine. I don't want to rush. I think I'm at an age where I don't want to rush into something I'm not interested in writing or can't sustain for-- my books take six or seven years to write.
I keep hoping that they won't, but they do.
Jane: I feel as if I want to have some kind of friendship with the subject in order to carry it with me for that amount of time.
Georgia: It shows in the product, I think in your-- it shows that you did spend a lot of time thinking about it. It's not just haphazard.
Jane: I feel like anything worth your attention is worth the time. It doesn't bother me a wit that I'm not at my desk every morning [laughs] working on the next book right now. It feels really enjoyable to be ruminating on shorter subjects or ideas for essays and things like that. Now, I have the opportunity I think to write, where I can write to an audience that I'm not worried about where I'm going to place this as much as I was 40 years ago. The whole publication thing is much more easeful in a way than it had been which makes it easier to write, frankly.
Georgia: Yes, less pressure. That's a nice place to be in too.
Georgia: I'm sure you are the envy of a lot of other authors.
Jane: Well, it's been six years--
Georgia: You've put in the work, you've put in the time. I'm trying a new thing with the podcast called a lightning round. I have a handful of questions and you don't have to give too much thought or answer to them. My first question is: have you ever started writing a book and then dropped it and what was that book about?
Jane: Yes. I tried to write a novel once and it was broadly based on farming and agriculture and it was horrible. I dropped it after 50 pages when I realized that to write-- what I love about nonfiction is that you have a block of granite and you're carving out from the block of granite. Writing fiction seemed like I was spinning into air. I didn't believe myself as a fiction writer, so I just dropped it.
Georgia: What's the worst piece of writing advice that you've ever received?
Jane: Maybe it's “write what you know.” Because I'm thinking you start out maybe knowing a little fragment of something, but you really write in order to understand something. Writing to me is an investigation or an exploration. Writing what you know is really confining so maybe that's it.
Georgia: I love that because it's very intimidating, the “write what you know.” You think "Well, what if I don't know anything interesting?" What are you currently reading?
Jane: Just picked up a book called Liberty, The Better Husband. I started researching for the next book. I've started reading about the experience of single women through history and time and that's a very interesting book about the 19th century cult of the single women in the 19th century. I also just picked up Lewis Hyde's new book called A Primer for Forgetting, which I'm really looking forward to reading.
Georgia: Do you read mostly nonfiction?
Jane: I would say probably 80% of what I read is nonfiction and that's to my chagrin a bit. It's just because I have so much to read for my writing that I end up reading that. I have this dream of having a summer where all I do is sit down and read fiction every day. Wake up and just start reading novels and short stories.
Georgia: That sounds like my best life.
Georgia: If you figure out how to do that, let me know. What's the best piece of writing advice that you give to your students at Lesley?
Jane: Well, that would be the advice of my dear departed father. It was always, "Stick with it." [laughs] I would just say it has to assume a dailiness, which makes it less intimidating. I try to get them to think about their writing life as something structured in their day so they don't leave it for the-- because everything will eat away at the time for writing if you let it. You have to treat that time with respect and you have to make a place for it in life or you just won't write.
Georgia: That's great. That's excellent advice, and I think that's a great place for us to stop. Thank you so much for coming today. I really loved reading Silence and felt like I now need to cultivate more of it in my own life, which is a good thing. I look forward to hearing about how your next book comes out too.
Jane: Well, thank you, Georgia. It's been a real pleasure.