Friday, November 16, 2012


by Sheila Connolly

I live in a mid-sized town (population 22,000, more or less) in what is defined as a rural area.  And it is bright and noisy.

Okay, it's not Manhattan.  I used to love visiting my grandmother when she lived there, in a residence hotel in midtown.  When my sister and I stayed over (always a treat!), we could hear the ceaseless honking of taxi horns far below us.  I remember waking up in her apartment once and not hearing that familiar sound—because an overnight blizzard had shut down the city.

The sound of trains has been a consistent background to my life, since my family almost always lived near a commuter rail line, and I have continued that in my adult life.  For a time we lived across from a BART station outside San Francisco, and the first train of the morning served as an alarm clock:  when I heard that whistle and rumble, I knew it was morning, and time to get up.  The same was true when I lived in Swarthmore, and we lived three blocks from the train station.  Now I live two blocks from the farthest station on my line for the train to Boston.

My current town has streetlights, as did the ones before.  They're good things, I suppose, letting drivers find their way and discouraging burglars, maybe.  But they're obtrusive.  Unless you are compulsive and cover all your windows with three layers of curtain and blind, you can't escape the light from the street.  It's never really dark.

A few years ago cartoonist Gary Trudeau had a brief thread in which one of his characters started inventorying how many lights were on in her room, on her electronic devices:  alarm clock, phone, CD player, computer, surge protector, etc., etc.  Again, never fully dark—you can navigate by the On/Off indicators, without turning on a single lamp.


Why am I talking about this?  Because I'm in Ireland, in a small house on a windswept hill, the same place we stayed on our last trip.  And at night it's dark.  There are no street lights—heck, there are barely streets, only half-paved lanes, and no one just happens to drive by.  No light pollution.  You can see the lights of a few neighbors, but they may be a mile away.  Likewise, it's quiet: no cars, no trains, no airplanes above.  There might be a dog barking over the hill, or a restless cow lowing somewhere if it's summer and they're out in the fields.  We did once stay at a bed and breakfast where they had three thousand sheep, and the chorus by day was fascinating—who knew there were so many variations on "baa"? But they were quiet at night.

How often these days do we encounter true darkness, true silence?  Many years ago I toured a prehistoric cave in France with a guide and a small group of people.  The guide turned off his light (the only one), and you couldn't see anything, not even the hand in front of your face. That is rare, and disorienting.  Imagine those prehistoric people who ventured into that dark, with only a torch—and left artworks behind. We don't do that any more.

I'd wager than most of us writers surround ourselves with light and sound, but maybe the Irish are such renowned wordsmiths because they have that silence to fill (I know, it's not unique to the Irish, but still). 

Has anybody done a study about city versus country authors?  Whether external noise is a help or a hindrance to a writer? How much energy to we spend blocking out those external distractions? Does it matter?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, I envy you the Irish silence. Your post struck several chords with me: the magical quality of the silence on waking in Manhattan to find it's snowed heavily in the night (it has to start late or the traffic and snow shovels immediately dispel the snow--and the magic); the electronically lighted bedroom, which I'm convinced is bad for our quality of sleep; the utter blackness of an unlit cave, which I've experienced in both the US and France (Pech Merle).

Susan Russo Anderson said...


Thank you so much for this post, so interesting. I remember moving from Brooklyn to the farmlands of central New Jersey and being kept awake by the silence.

Interesting, too, is that we associate silence with lack of light. I'm doing research about Paris in the 1850s to 1870s and how it changed after Baron Hausmann retooled the city and they installed gas lamps and what a difference that must have made to people.

Susan said...

I too live in a small town, population 9,900, hear trains on a regular schedule, and my children have all moved to big cities. They sleep so well when they come back to visit because of the lack of big city noise. A few years ago, in the winter, we lost power for three days. I remember how eerie it was to live in a house with absolutely no sound. It was disorienting and isolating.

Sandra Parshall said...

I wish I at least had easy access to a place that's truly dark at night. The difference in what you can seein the sky is phenomenal. There's so much out there in the universe that most modern people will never see in their entire lives.

And yet. Because we live in a heavily populated county outside Washington, DC, I'm always alarmed when a widespread power outage leaves a large areas in total darkness. The darkness seems unnatural and dangerous. Now that we have a generator, we can turn on our outdoor lights at night even in an outage, and that makes me feel safer.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Liz, there are studies that prove you right: even the limited light from an electronic bedside clock can damage sleep by adversely affecting hormones. (No, not those hormones that affect sleep in a different way!)