Channels and White Noise/Dark Noise Revisited

(The door to channels of white and dark noise…)

My friend Dan Read has had some very interesting things to say in connection with my White Noise/Solitude post earlier this week, and I’m going to bring them up out of the comments thread and into this revisting of the subject. See below. I’m curious whether anyone else has trouble with this balance, and any thoughts on it, especially since it’s part of the sustainable career/sustainable creativity section of my forthcoming Booklife book from Tachyon.

Here’s part of my response to Dan, as well: I totally agree with you re channels. It’s tough sometimes. We keep too many channels open and we have to retreat completely from all of them. The key is the recognition that too many channels are open before a fuse blows. I’m always somewhat afraid of getting burnt out and not regaining whatever it is that keeps the imagination continuously putting out ideas and images. This in particular resonates: “One thing that’s tricky is that the channel stays open in your consciousness even when you’re not paying attention to it. In fact, the fact that you’re not paying attention to it at any given moment creates an extra stress.” This is one reason I am not writing much fiction while doing the 60 in 60. It started as an interesting exercise, something to cleanse my mind. It still is doing that, but with the linkage to the feature, the Guardian thing etc., it is now much more of a “performance” than I’d planned. And so I have to be careful now that this open channel also doesn’t become something that burns me out.

The text below is all copyright Dan Read.

I have experienced an overload of what you call dark noise. It was followed by a depression, actually. Instead of the dark noise metaphor, though, I’ve thought of it as having a finite ability to handle a limited number of “open channels.” Mostly the idea of a “channel” centers to me around a communication medium: a blog one writes, a site where one participates in comment threads regularly, an email account (each conversation is a sub-channel, and I experienced an overload on one of my main email accounts also), a collaboration on a project–but a channel could be any relationship, really, though I think particularly an online one, because the other side of the channel is not feeding back into you directly, if at all.

I think this kind of overload is a sign of the times, and I wonder whether the younger generation will evolve with the ability to handle far more open channels. I went over my limit, experienced burnout, and ended up letting some people down from over committing.

One thing that’s tricky is that the channel stays open in your consciousness even when you’re not paying attention to it. In fact, the fact that you’re not paying attention to it at any given moment creates an extra stress. I’ve started training myself to be careful of opening new channels. And online, I’ve found myself becoming more of a passive consumer of online channels that don’t know I’m listening.

Connected to this topic for me was an overload of too much attention spent in the virtual world of the internet, and also mass media in general, particularly TV. The “real world” became more foreign to me, and that took a toll.


The verb “regaining” that you use is most apt to the situation after the fuse blows. There is a process that happens, hopefully, of regaining.

Switching gears…

Setting aside for a moment the usual debates about personality tests, the Meyers-Briggs (sp?) personality types offer an interesting perspective here: on one of the four dimensions measured, people are either “I” types or “E” types. “I” stands for Introverted and “E” for Extroverted, but the terms don’t have quite their usual meaning in this context. “I” means that one is energized, rejuvenated by alone time; conversely, time spent with people (and on open channels, I believe) are a drain on energy. “E” means that one takes *in* energy from the company of others, and alone time is draining.

One’s tolerance and desire for open channels, for dark noise may have something do with one’s proclivity as an I or E. As I’ve aged I’ve definitely learned that I have “I” tendencies, and I have to be careful with open channels. (I still think dak noise is a good metaphor, just with a different perspective; dark noise comes from everywhere, not just the channels you’ve explicitly opened, and has an element of randomness to it; without the dark noise, and some open channels, we have no raw material for either life or art…).

There is another perspective in your post and comment that is also useful and powerful: the cyclical nature of things–to every season, etc. It’s natural and normal to sometimes be in a state of taking in, sometimes of putting out, sometimes producing, sometimes incubating. These cycles are baked into nature itself. It seems to me that some of your exercises and techniques are designed to harness these natural cycles in order to keep a constant flow of some kind going. Art is very much a craft at that point, and in some ways like the process of an endurance athlete.

The product of your energy is not just a burst, but rather the result of a deliberate discipline. Your physical and mental ability to keep up a steady output are also based on your discipline. But when what you do requires inspiration as well (controlled bursts?), not just perspiration (to put a little Jesse Jackson spin on it), you’ve got to design things into your process to let the inspiration in while you keep the wheel spinning.


  1. says

    I have tested out as an ENFP (Extroverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceptive) personality type. I have to have a lot of different stimuli going on around me to feel good; ennui sets in whenever a routine takes up too much of my time. I’m much more about starting things than I am about finishing them and I have found that I work best in a collaborative environment – mostly top/down divisions of labor, such as that between traditional teachers and students, bore me to death and often make me frustrated.

    I can have too many “open channels,” but my danger is always too many “closed” ones. If I spend, say, 24 hours away from anyone, I start to feel very odd, disconnected, and it’s disconcerting to me. I also need a new change of environment every so often just to get rid of the blahs that seem to develop whenever there is a sense of a strong routine being developed. I guess I have the opposite problem that you face, Jeff, as the more “distractions” I have, the more productive I can be. Then again, there were those who thought I was at least borderline ADHD growing up…

  2. says

    I think I’ve written enough about my incredibly low social tolerance. I have no stamina with any sort of interaction, and no matter how much I may enjoy a person’s company, there’s no relief greater than saying ‘goodbye’. If there are loud conversations around me in the office, I have trouble. It doesn’t affect my ability to work at all, but the fact that I can’t escape these voices stresses me to no end – that would be an overloaded open channel at work, I assume. The same is true of situations in which I’m not required to do anything, conversations around me on the train, or being in the vicinity of loud music, for instance. Can’t keep my surroundings out of my head. Feels like an invasion. I don’t think I’m capable of actually closing a channel. This One thing that’s tricky is that the channel stays open in your consciousness even when you’re not paying attention to it. In fact, the fact that you’re not paying attention to it at any given moment creates an extra stress. had particular resonance. Being alone isn’t restricted to saying nothing, but needing to have nothing said in return. (I think I wrote a couple of stories on this theme, actually.)

    Hence, anything even remotely creative happens in quiet. In solitude as well, as even if another person is being quiet, they’re a sitting mass of potential interaction, and the tension is another stress. This means turning the internet off. Turning the music off. The most external interference is through the window, the outside world going on without me. Just passing through life is been more than enough inspiration, I’ve never had to actively hunt it out.

    Living alone has been great for writing. Just reading Larry’s comment made my jaw clench. I can’t follow any detailed thought process or construct if there are other people’s words in the air, or that I can’t exorcise from my head. Overload shuts down my output, as I learned from several nightshifts this year. The effects of such stress tend to be exponential as well, the more stressed I am, the less it takes to stress me further. Then all input/output is shut down, and the brood engine turned on.

    (Conversely, spending too much time locked away makes me lose perspective, go a bit paranoid and insular and crazy, and I need to go out into spaces that aren’t mine and be around things I cannot control whose every act is a surprise. I don’t know if that counts as an open channel, as this doesn’t necessary equate to interacting with anyone so much as crossing foreign territory.)

    The internet is a bit funny in the open channel/dark noise lingo. I wrote a bit on it here, about balancing issues I was having with it, and found this article on the pitfalls of online interaction quite insightful. It helped me cut down on a lot of white noise, which reclaimed a fair amount of time and headspace.

    Because I know my interaction saturation point is so very, very low, I don’t tend to have many channels of any sort in existence at any one time, and I’ve burned myself so often I’m a lot less reluctant about shutting everything down for the sake of my own sanity, trodden toes be damned. That has nothing to do with sustainability, and everything to do with fending off depression.

    As an aside, I come up as INFJ. This makes me a pain in the butt. Also, I can read your mind.

    Mostly, I think all artists are mad, and follow no sane pattern.