Thursday, April 9, 2020

Stewart Sinclair and His Advanced Fiction Class: 4'33 in a Pandemic

On March 15, I held the final in-person class of the semester with my students at City College in Harlem. Then I took the hour-and-a-half train ride home to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. This semester I’m teaching Advanced Fiction, but in truth, while the students are still responsible for writing short stories and critiquing each other’s work, much of our attention has been on collectively processing the moment in which we now find ourselves, a moment in which every one of our actions, large and small, is consequential; a moment where every second seems charged with meaning, whether or not we do anything at all.
     As I moved our classes online, I decided, like many instructors in similar situations, to create a blog where we could explore some of the questions that arise from week to week. In part, this is an admission of failure on my part as an instructor. Maybe I should be doing more to cloister off my classroom, convert it into its own space where our work is isolated from the world around us. But I can’t compartmentalize my thoughts, and it seems that many of my students find themselves in the same position. Even when the topic is not explicitly related to COVID-19, the subject invariably arises.
     A couple weeks ago, the subject of the blog was boredom and silence. I introduced students to John Cage’s notorious composition, 4’33”, which consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of “silence,” and I then asked my students to “perform” the piece for themselves. I asked them to listen to a recording of 4’33 and then write down what they experienced.
     The prompt had nothing directly to do with this pandemic, but as I read through their responses, I realized that it provided a snapshot, or rather, a multitude of snapshots, of this moment. With their permission, input and collaboration, the following is a collection of these snapshots, windows into the lives twenty New Yorkers sparing a moment of silence.

Fourteen days in and I find more joy in watching the birds land on my window than I do from Netflix. As the days in which we’re stuck inside get longer, my senses, and the sense of sounds more than anything, improve. The sound of Mom's fish hitting the frying pan in the kitchen; my sister talking on the phone two rooms down the hall. I found myself reminiscing on conversations with people from my job. People I couldn’t stand, and yet, miss dearly. —Lashaune Wright

I've gone from a juggling two jobs and school to being confined to my home. I didn't think the restlessness I’ve been feeling would allow me to concentrate, but slowly I was able to just be. The second movement came around and I could hear a few things, mostly the vibration of my refrigerator. There was the occasional car breezing by and the birds chirping in the yard. I also heard the quacking from the ducks that live in the park up the block. All these things took part in my silence. —Stephany Santos

The hum of my refrigerator and the muffled sound of the standard Carnival Cruise "hold message" while my husband tried to cancel our vacation with the phone on speaker. There were sirens, wind chimes banging against my porch, and the sound of my own breathing. I expected to hear a shift or something come from the track, but I heard nothing but my own environment, and then, the sound of the man’s voice announcing that this was the next “part.” —Dalia Viera-Gonzalez

I felt my feet touch the ground, my eyes blink, I heard the sound of the wind clatter on my terrace door and the rambling of ambulances. I got to think and reflect. I remembered an argument with my boyfriend today. I said some things I wish I could take back. —Skye Alexander

I live in a small place with my father, sister and six animals, so it's never quiet if people are home. I started this "performance" just after my family had come home with groceries. Even with my door closed, I could faintly hear my sister's music, her conversation with my father, and with our younger cat. The older cat was in my room. I could hear her grooming herself, tongue against fur and the soft jingle of the bell on her collar. I also heard a faint static-y sound. It was probably in my own head along with the lyrics of a song I've been listening to on repeat all day. I’m not sure I got anything out of that. I found this pointless. But at least my cat was with me. —Henny Neustadt

A bird, not a pigeon, had something to say in the middle of the night with a lovely solitary song. I heard a voice on the street, the man with Tourette’s syndrome explaining his mind to the world. One ambulance. The refrigerator compressor whirred and then stopped. The low hum of traffic from the FDR Drive offered a comforting sense of routine business. The last time it was this quiet was the week after 9/11 when they blocked off our neighborhood. Now, the surreal feeling is the same, but the fear is worse. —Don Macleod

I’m in my room in the Financial District, far from nature, far from the countryside, far from my home in Armenia. I feel homesick. Normally, being far from home on your first visit to New York would mean forgetting that homesickness. But this isn’t “normal.” Now my whole world is this little deck surrounded by tall buildings. I have to look up to find the sky between the crisscrossing fire escapes. From here, I can hear the hum of the air conditioner, the non-stop sound of police and ambulance sirens, my breath, each click of my mouse, which is so much louder when you focus on it. Inside, the curtains wave gently in the wind. —Arpa Hacopian

My computer fan was a constant soft whirring, while later on I heard the muffled noise of the microwave stirring from the kitchen, and the distant sound of cars driving by. While I did have an urge to fill the space with something louder, like music or the background noise of a T.V. show, what I was hearing wasn't silence at all. It sounded like something more akin to white noise; a constant thrum of wave frequencies, like static. —Soyna Girdhari

I’ve been isolated since we transitioned to “distance learning” two weeks ago. My only vantage on the outside world has been one walk to my grocery store down the street to get some chicken thighs, butter and hot dog buns. I was interrupted by the sounds of sirens, something I hadn't been accustomed to in my quiet Washington Heights neighborhood. The sounds of the apocalypse seem to be the only thing permeating what I spend my time doing every day. The days blur together. Four a.m. has become my new eleven p.m., and while my last semester in college was set to be one of the most important ones in my undergraduate career, it’s become a hassle to even read a story or turn in an assignment. This silent moment didn't really calm me or provide any insight because most of my days are spent in a sort of silence filled with the occasional murmur of the other family members living in our home. —Micah Lopez

I live with a toddler, so I couldn't get lost in silence the way I wanted to. I was wearing headphones, buried under two quilts, and still I could still hear The Wiggles playing from the living room. Whatever the case, I noticed the "silence" during the performance was not silent at all. I could hear what sounded like waves and light splashes of water which then had me critiquing the recording itself because, if this is an exercise in silence, why are you producing sounds? Unless I imagined that, which would be interesting. —Anthony Ruiz

I relocated, away from New York, to my parent's house in Wisconsin last week. We're in the middle of a thunderstorm now. I heard the sound of rain hitting my roof and occasional thunder. Inside, my dog was chewing on an antler. At the same time, Seth Rogen was laughing on the tv while Superbad was playing. I also heard the back and forth of a crayon moving across paper as my mom colored at the kitchen table. —Cooper York

I live across the street from the FDR Drive. In my left ear, I heard cars whirring, the occasional motorcycle. In my right ear, I heard the doors in the apartment opening and closing, the water running in the kitchen, and the tv playing Indian soap operas. You would think the highway noises would get annoying, but it's preferable to tinnitus. That's partly why I'm never really all that comfortable with silence, because then I'm stuck listening to that high-pitched echo invading my daydreams. I like to think of the car noises as the sound of the blood of New York being pumped through its veins. It's like the sounds of a forest or a waterfall. There’s a natural soothing to it that makes you feel like you’re tapping into a small part of something bigger than yourself. —Sydul Akhanji

I could hear my boyfriend breathing in the next room, our living room, as he did yoga. Practicing mindfulness and meditation has become a regular thing in our home since this quarantine thing happened. Mindfulness is something I have always found as a way to ground myself, bring everything going on in my life and settle it, and process it in a way that doesn't disturb my inner peace. I could hear my breathing and the vibration of my iPhone as my sister texted me. I heard the rumblings of my stomach, the creaking of my chair, the rustling of my sweater, the wind outside, the neighbors upstairs walking, their dog barking. —Mame Wallace

I live along Riverside, so all I could hear were cars, and dogs barking, although I'd say remarkably less than I would normally hear this time of year. I'm used to the clicking of dominos, music, and loud conversations and laughter from the street, so to only hear the muffled hum of a car or the ticking of the analog clock in the living room was admittedly haunting. I thought a lot about the performance as I took a short walk today to the park and back. Then too, I felt the haunting presence of silence on my shoulders, but I also felt an intimacy with my immediate environment. I saw budding flowers and trees, a small patch of the park was a vibrant green with birds fluttering about, which all made me smile behind my face mask. —Paris Green

I heard the sound of my space heater, clunky footsteps upstairs, and my little brother screaming at his friends. I realized how alike the sound of the house creaking and raindrops are. I enjoyed that discovery. I also found that my brother's voice sounded exactly like our older brother's voice. And how if I didn't know better, I would've thought it was him playing video games in the other room. Overall it felt a lot like meditation, which I really haven't had the chance to practice since this whole pandemic hit our lives. —Maia Krempel

It’s 5 a.m. No one is making noise in my house. The sound of my dad's tv isn’t there to drown everything out. I still have the loud pounding against my ear from my tinnitus, even though I’ve gotten used to it. It can prevent me from hearing certain things if they aren’t loud enough, but some sounds crept through. Airplanes in the sky, a train passing by, the wind outside, the static from my tv, a song stuck in my head (“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad”). —Lisa Lupo

It’s around 10:30 p.m., so most of the public life outside has died down now. Even with the pandemic, you would usually still hear dogs barking, the scraping of bicycle and car wheels on the pavement, and a few people talking loudly to each other. But with everyone in the house asleep except for me and my father, up in the attic, and he with his headphones watching something on Netflix, only a few sounds came up to meet me. The occasional gust of wind slapping the windowpane; the creak of the fold-out chair I lay my computer on; the skin on my hands as I rub them from boredom; my pulse. —Gabriel Noel


Stewart Sinclair is a writer whose reportage, personal essays and narrative nonfiction has been featured in Lit Hub, Guernica, The New Orleans Review, The Million, The Morning News, and elsewhere. Recently his essay “Search Party” was selected for True Story, a mini-magazine from the editors of Creative Nonfiction. He is currently working on his first book about class, identity and motherhood in a fractured America. @stewsinclair

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