The lawnmower fired up outside the open window, and every one of my retreat partners looked up with an annoyed expression. We’d made a pact to let one another work in silence, so all heads went back down and what had been the rhythmic tapping of keyboard keys continued at a stumbling gait.Whatever sentence I’d been forming had flown out the window to be completely mown down, pulverized. As the mechanical intruder steadily neared, its volume increased with a corresponding impact on my ability to focus. It occurred to me with dismay that an expansive lawn surrounded the old military barracks where my friends and I were staying.
The retreat partner most adamant about maintaining quiet jumped to her feet. “That’s it!” She reached the window in a couple of strides and banged it down. The action brought the situation to a head, and we briefly abandoned our code of silence to complain about the distraction.
This is when I discovered I’m not as alone as I’d thought. Until then, when other writers mentioned listening to white noise while writing, I felt left out, even slightly deficient. But thinking that way is a mistake, and what’s more, not accurate.
When it comes to writing processes, walk the path that works best for you.
That doesn’t mean I can’t compare notes and glean from others, nor should I overlook scientific research.
Should You Write to White Noise?
Silence Isn’t Really Silent
Chances are good that what you think of as silence is actually white noise. Also called background or ambient noise, white noise is made up of sounds that are always present (such as traffic noises, a ticking clock, birdsong). We get so used to sounds that are present all the time that they don’t distract us. It’s as if we stop hearing them. I can remember being startled by the distant hum of traffic that showed up in a video I filmed of birds singing in one of our trees. Perhaps this is why sleeping in a new place with unfamiliar white noise can be difficult.
Artificially-generated white noise can mask intrusive sounds, but studies suggest it also releases cortisol, a hormone that at certain levels impairs the frontal cortex of the brain, an area that governs planning, reasoning, and impulse control. Noise-related stress appears to interfere with the focus of students in classroom settings.
Should you rule out white noise?
What I find fascinating is that the studies support the idea that we are all wired differently, and that what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. But then we knew that.
I write best in my closet office, a small space that is quiet except for the whirring of my computer fan. But I can still surprise myself. I told myself I’m not comfortable writing out of doors, but one of my best writing sessions while on retreat involved a gazebo with water falling in the background.
Most of the time, it’s a good idea to stick with the sound level that works best for you, but let yourself experiment once in a while.
Do you listen to generated white noise, escape from noise as much as you can to write, or does your process involve something in between?