The Alchemy of Silence

“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes - ah, that is where the art resides.”

(Artur Schnabel)

I wrote about the Alchemy of Words the other week. Today, I’d like to talk about the Alchemy of Silence. 

Too many words

As you likely know, I use way too many words. These blogs are pretty much always too long even though the version you get has been edited down! I don’t mind shortening them. I know I don’t read things that go on and on. I assume that doesn’t interest you much either. At the same time, each week when I sit down to write these things the traffic jam of ideas in my head can be truly overwhelming. Sorting through what to keep and what to throw can be dizzying. 

A picture is worth…

I started learning the Cherokee language recently. It’s teaching me a lot about myself. The Cherokee syllabary is not made of letters the way English is. Not too dissimilar from their very ancient ancestors in Asia, the Cherokee characters are symbols for sounds. Each symbol has a meaning. Many “words” are a combination of symbol-sounds that give the words more layers of meanings. 

Basically, the Cherokee syllabary is a bunch of pictures. A picture is worth a thousand words. There are a LOT of silences in Cherokee. Unlike English where the silences can so often be filled with anxiety and/or awkwardness, the silences in Cherokee are the place where those speaking meet in what Artur Schnabel would call, “the pauses in between the notes.” It’s a place for connection and exchange. 


No, that isn’t “I… I.” It isn’t aye aye. It’s not even pronounced that way. (It’s more like two nasal “u” sounds in a row.) That is the Cherokee word for “yes.” It’s transliterated as “vv.” 

In Cherokee culture, words aren’t wasted, and silences are honored. Many times, instead of cluttering the space with words, Cherokee speakers will just respond with “vv.” 

“Vv” is like a place marker for that connection that goes beyond the words. Two people can meet in the middle of that space. The quiet they find there can be transformative.

What's there

I think in pictures. My clients quickly get used to “Tiffany’s crazy metaphors.” As I sit with people and listen to their experiences, pictures automatically fill my mind. The pictures go well beyond what the client is saying. Very often when I voice one of “Tiffany’s crazy metaphors,” the client will say “Yes! That’s it!” As we explore the picture, we nearly always come to a much more complete understanding of the situation at hand. 

The pictures contain both the words and all of those spaces in between the client’s words. The human experience marinates in between the sounds. In that wordless place, we connect and find that we are not alone.

What’s not there

The quote above by pianist Artur Schnabel has been a favorite of mine for many years. As a musician, as a writer, as a therapist, and even in those times when I dabble in visual art, I’ve come to understand that the silences and the places where there is no line or paint or pen stroke or mark are places of collaboration with the audience. They make the work a dialogue instead of a monologue.

I have been writing poems since I was a teenager. My poems don’t rhyme. They don’t have meter. They are, for lack of a better term, scant. I leave great big physical spaces on the page, leaving them mostly white. My natural tendency is to paint experiences with spaces and silences, given shape by the words.

After I write a poem, I go back and read it, imagining what it might be like for the reader. It wasn’t something I ever did intentionally, but I’ve found that the white spaces, the quiet points, the incomplete sentences, all create an emotional-psychological space for the feelings and reactions that stir up from what is there. What’s not there is not reduced to words. The white space is like my version of “vv.”

The dash

In the “vv,” we refuse to cut away parts of our lived reality by stuffing it into words. We aren’t ignoring it. We aren’t pretending that we fully understand. The place marked by “vv” reminds us that our lives are so much more than what we can capture in words. 

It’s a lot like that dash we find after people have passed away. We give the year they were born and the year they died. We mark their whole existence with a tiny little dash in between. That dash, that tiny little speck, holds the entirety of their lifetime. 


Thinking of that dash – I intended to do this blog last week. Life got in the way, and here we are, around the corner from Mother’s Day. Here I am writing something that my mother taught me, without words, in the space between us. 

My mother always made space for the unspoken. She craved simplicity, very aware that too many objects, too many words, too much activity, too much explanation, too much… clutter, reduced the meaning of everything. Too much clutter leaves us missing out on the fullness of what could be if we would only quiet ourselves for a moment and take it in, refusing to make whatever it is smaller with definitions.

That dash

It can be painful to think of an entire lifetime of someone who mattered to us, reduced to a dash in between their dates. I have to say though, in this case, I think it’s just right:

Holly Elaine Mueller (Willis) (Slaugh) 1939 ~ 2014.



Do you struggle with silence?  Do you want more of it in your life? Contact Tiffany here!