The urge to create a narrative seems fundamental to human nature,” writes Susan Griffin in Out of Silence, Sound. Out of Nothing, Something: A Writer’s Guide. Griffin has much to say about how the process of storytelling shapes how we see the world and how we understand who we are. As well as offering guidance in the craft of writing, the book tells of the author’s own journey as a writer. A poet, playwright, essayist, and feminist philosopher, Griffin has published twenty-two books in a life dedicated to literature. Her 1978 book, Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her, was a pivotal publication in ecological thought, linking, as it did, the exploitation of our natural environment with colonialism and the subjugation of women.
Griffin, who turned 80 this year, is a master at interpreting universal ideas through the prism of her personal experience. In her 1992 book A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, she draws on her own troubled family history to analyze the connections among war, gender, sexuality, and denial. In 1999, she published What Her Body Thought: A Journey into the Shadows, which interweaves historical and literary analysis with an account of her own struggle with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) to reflect on the interrelationship of body, mind, illness, and society.
Throughout her writing, Griffin explicates connection where separation is otherwise the norm. In reading Out of Silence, Sound. Out of Nothing, Something, I was struck by how Griffin describes writing in terms of a spiritual practice. “To craft a sentence,” she writes, “will change not only what you write, but most often, even on a subtle scale, your own thoughts.”
Griffin has studied with such Buddhist teachers as Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Joan Halifax. Buddhist teachings and Vipassana meditation have, she says, taught her a great deal about herself and the nature of consciousness. But while Griffin considers Buddhism a great tool in her life, she doesn’t call herself a “Buddhist.” She says she prefers “not pinning myself down to a simple definition,” which is, she notes as an afterthought, “a kind of Buddhist approach.”
As a writer and meditator myself, there was much I wanted to explore with Griffin. Does she, like me, see writing as a form of meditation? How do writing and storytelling shape our view of the world? How is it that, as she says, so many things remain hidden until we find the right words to describe them? In the following interview (edited for clarity and brevity), we talked about these and quite a few other matters, with one thing connecting to another.
Can you explain what is at the root of your impulse to write? Well, several different motivations, but mainly that I love writing. I love the actual process of it. I also love working with my students, I love working with their prose or poetry and getting inside it and showing them ways they can fine-tune it and make it better. I even love playing with the grammar of sentences. I love the raw mechanics of writing. And part of what I love about it is the state of mind I get into when I’m doing it. It’s humble work. It’s sort of like being a carpenter. People get in trouble when they put writers on a pedestal and believe the romanticized notion of writers as Hemingway-style geniuses. Writing is the same kind of work that a carpenter does.
Writing can be more than just a profession. Isn’t it also a way of being in the world? Yes, definitely! When I’m writing and things are going well, and I’m capturing what I wanted to capture, I feel as if there’s a host around me, in the sense of the old religious idea of a host: a host of spiritual beings. It feels as if there’s a sort of yes there that is coming from existence itself—not just from humans, but also animals and plants; a host that is nodding in agreement, saying: “yes, you’ve hit the mark here.” Such moments are brought on when you get close to something that hasn’t been expressed before, or something you haven’t been able to express before.
Do you experience writing as a form of meditation? There’s a lot of similarity to meditation in the sense that you have such a keen focus on what you’re doing. You can get into a kind of altered state of consciousness in which new solutions and new thoughts and new ways of saying things suddenly arrive in your head. It’s a very receptive state of mind, highly perceptive, and highly focused.
If you’re really on to something in your writing, then your whole consciousness is brought up for you. If you’re on point, it will clear your mind of other thoughts. You’re not focusing in the conventional way or according to the conventions that already exist, but you’re focusing as much as you can on the thing itself. In writing, you’re often stripping something of all the opinions about it, to try to get a fresh look, and that’s very meditative.
But writing doesn’t replace meditation. They do different things in the long run.
Buddhist meditation is often seen as a movement from sound to stillness, getting away from words and concepts to just be. But writing may be the reverse: a movement from silence to sound, as you indicate in your title. But you’re not trying to put the silence into sound; you’re listening into the silence for the sound. We hear these little phrases, either what somebody says, or something that’s repeating in our own minds, and we don’t pay attention. But a poet pays attention and writes things down. Many poems begin with a phrase that’s been rattling around in your head; you don’t even know what it means, but you write it down. It has some meaning, but the meaning sort of cuts off after a few words. So it’s a matter of paying attention to these phrases that are in there. Sometimes, I’ll hear somebody use a phrase, and I’ll think, “My God, what you just said is extraordinary!,” although to the person, it probably seems sort of pedestrian and normal. But it’s not. Writing begins with listening.
That makes me think of something you wrote, in What Her Body Thought: “we need words, not only to describe what is observed, but to observe at all.” What does that mean to you? If you don’t have a word for something, you may not even see it. Or you may see it, and you may doubt yourself. Or you’re at a loss for words, because, literally: there are no words for it. It is hard to see something unless you delineate it. In my book, I use the example of Virginia Woolf, who described how she did not really understand her relationship with her father until she learned the word “ambivalence.” Only then did she understand why her feelings for her father alternated between rage and love.
“The best writing often occurs at this boundary between vocabulary and emptiness.”
In that process, when you find a word for an experience or emotion, your understanding becomes deeper and more sophisticated. In the natural world, you often don’t notice things unless you have the words for them. For example, let’s say there are different kinds of grasses, but they all look the same to you until you learn the words for them. Once you have a word for something and you start looking for it, you suddenly can see it. There’s a reciprocal process between meaning and naming.
And that’s part of the experience of writing? Yes, I think that the best writing often occurs at this boundary between vocabulary and emptiness, when you have no words to express something. I think, often, when there’s something that can’t be expressed, you write around it: you describe everything that’s evoked by it, or precedes it, or comes after it, or everything that it is not. And then slowly, the inexpressible comes into view and you have found a way to express it. That’s a lot of what the best writing is.
Would you say that our perception is shaped by language? Yes, very much so. Language can open up or shape our perception. It can deepen our perception or make it more flexible. But language can also have a negative effect. Prejudicial language narrows how we perceive the world.
Language has the capacity to take us beyond what is already understood in the culture. You may be experiencing something that many other people besides you experienced, but they just haven’t put it into words. And maybe you aren’t even original by putting it into words, but you put it into different words, different kinds of words that other people understand. But it’s not a matter of being the first; it’s a matter of seeing what is not normally seen, and understanding it. Experiencing it, really.
You also wrote about language as metaphor. Almost all words are metaphors. I like the example of “truth,” which is such an abstract word. But it comes from the word for “tree,” a straight tree that could be used as a way to measure quantities. Words come from palpable material sources. Most of the words we use are rooted in physical experience. We tend to think of language and thought as above, as superior to, physical existence. But they are not; they are rooted in it. And there’s this tendency in our culture to denigrate material experience: the assumption that sensual and material experience is inferior to what we call “spiritual experience.” But I would say that all experience is spiritual. What is material, especially, is spiritual at base. So it all has spiritual significance. And we feel the connection to a larger existence through sensual experience. If I taste, let’s say, an apple, that taste of the apple ties me to apple trees, which ties me to the soil, which ties me to rain, to sunshine, to what is growing around the tree which decomposes to become part of the humus and then becomes part of the apple eventually. So the taste of an apple is not some sort of vulgar, unfortunate experience we have to have as human beings, something opposed to spiritual experience. Taste is a spiritual experience. Much of my work has to do with retrieving the spirituality and significance of the material world.
Do you feel constrained by words? I don’t blame the words! But I can definitely feel at a loss for words. Often! People think that writers always have the right words. But that’s not true. I think writers feel more often at a loss for words because we’re very sensitive to what they actually mean. People might substitute some sort of stock phrase for what they’re trying to get at, and if it’s not exactly accurate, they don’t care. They don’t think about it. But, as writers, we are aware that the stock phrases that come up are inadequate to describe what we’re feeling or trying to say.
In the 1999 edition of Woman and Nature, you wrote that the times when you published the book were more hopeful. What made the 1970s so hopeful? It was a time of intense feminism. And also the environmental movement was beginning. Both of those movements were hopeful and exciting because new insights and new organizations were forming, and we weren’t so far along in the path of climate chaos yet.
And are you still hopeful now? I have to be. It’s in my nature, and I have grandchildren. I have witnessed enormous changes during my lifetime. Those of us born during the war were permanently shaped by it in many ways. The Holocaust and the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki—we were born into a world in which these horrors existed. We took those things in as part of the nature of our society and reality. And the other thing is, of course, that as women we had far less equality. But I’ve seen enormous changes in my lifetime: I’ve seen the overthrowing of authoritarian governments, and the downing of the Berlin Wall. And these things were very hopeful.
Now, of course, a lot of authoritarian governments are rising again. We had Trump, who was definitely an authoritarian ruler. But he hasn’t destroyed democracy . . . yet. We’re still fighting for democracy; we’re fighting to save the Earth; we’re fighting for women’s rights. It’s the same struggle. But there’s a far greater number of people now, I would say, who are for women’s rights, who are for saving the Earth, and who are for democracy. And that wasn’t true thirty or forty years ago.
Are you talking about the US? The US and around the world too. If you look at what’s going on, at the level of governance, it’s very daunting and disturbing. But if you look at the level of what’s going on among people, it looks more hopeful. Look at the Iranian women and what they’ve been doing! Women who defy the laws are subject to ten years in prison, and yet they’re out in the streets protesting anyway. That’s quite extraordinary.
You wrote that in the process of telling a story, one comes to understand events on a deeper level. Could you talk more about the urge that humans seem to have to tell stories? It’s fundamental to human nature. We tell stories about who we are and what we’ve been through. And not only what we have been through, but also what our ancestors have been through, and what the people we know have been through. Communities create themselves by telling stories. Some people may put that down as “gossip,” but it’s much more than that. It’s a community weaving its own history, its own stories, and trying to understand itself: connecting one thing with another, and one person with another. It is fundamental to human psychology. We shape our perception of the world and ourselves through words and stories.
How has illness shaped your relationship with writing? I can’t write rapidly anymore. Physically, I just can’t do it. I get fatigued rather easily because of my ME. Recently, I’ve also gotten the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. But I have all these ideas in my mind, and when I lie down to rest, the writing goes on, but not the actual words. The thinking has become a very essential and welcome part of my writing process. It’s because I have to rest so often. I’m now looking at the process of thought in a different way. It was always part of my work, but the way I’m treating it now is more concentrated.
“We shape our perception of the world and ourselves through words and stories.”
Does the mental world take on more importance when your body is struggling? I wouldn’t put it that way. I mean, the physical world has become very important. It has made me get horizontal. I’m obeying the physical world. But then I have this peaceful, open time to think. And instead of saying, “well, I can’t work anymore today,” I began to see that as part of my work. I’m working in a different way now. In my book, I mention how Hannah Arendt would spend hours just staring out the window. She said that was a part of her process. She would just sit, and stare, and be thinking. And she regarded that as part of her work. So I’m in a great tradition!
And that goes back to what we talked about earlier: writing as a form of meditation—a process of discovery and letting your mind find connections. Yes, that’s right. It’s not that something creative has come into your head and then you write it all down. It’s more often that you write something and then that suggests the next step. You write a sentence, and then that suggests the next sentence and then the next sentence, and then you finish the paragraph. And then you don’t know where to go after that. So you wait for a while, and you walk around. And maybe you even wait for a week. And then, suddenly, it comes to you. And you write that paragraph. You want to allow your mind to find connections. You can’t force it. It’s a matter of creating the space in which your mind can discover those connections, which your mind wants to do already.
I think our minds are happiest when we’re weaving things together. We have this desire for meaning, and meaning often is a way of making connections. Because in the world, everything is connected to everything else, and our minds reflect nature that way.
All That We Know
In the days before I began to write my book Woman and Nature, while I was washing dishes, I found myself listening to a radio broadcast about the dangers of plutonium. For several moments I felt powerless. But then after a few more moments of despair, I realized that this feeling was exactly what I had to contribute. I wrote a long paragraph expressing the sense of utter pow- erlessness that ordinary people feel when faced with this threat. . . .
We hear there is a substance and it is called plutonium. We hear that “they” are somewhere (do you remember the name of the state?) manufacturing it. We don’t know how it is made. We think the substance uranium is used. We know it is radioactive. We have seen the photographs of babies and children deformed from radiation. The substance plutonium becomes interesting to us when we read that certain parts of buildings where it is manufactured have leaks. We don’t know really what this means, if it is like the leak in our roofs or the water pipe in the backyard, or if it is a simple word for a process beyond our comprehension. But we know the word “leak” indicates error and we know that there is no room for error in the handling of this substance. That it has been called the most deadly substance known. That the smallest particle (can one see a particle, smell it?) can cause cancer if breathed, if ingested. All that we know in the business of living eludes us in this instant.
Excerpted from Out of Silence, Sound. Out of Nothing, Something: A Writer’s Guide, by Susan Griffin, and Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her, by Susan Griffin, reprinted with permission by Counterpoint Press.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.