Open Your Ears! Close Your Ears!

dog listeningA few days ago, the mail carrier came up our front steps, passing by a large picture window near my writing desk. As she slipped the mail into our mailbox, she didn’t peer into our window, but if she had, she would have seen me wearing my Wonder Woman snuggie, lying belly up on the floor, my fists pressing into my forehead as I stared at the ceiling.

Lying there, I giggled, imagining what she might have said, had she seen me. “Wonder Woman down! Someone, call 9-1-1!”

To which I would have replied, “No, no! I’m fine! I’m just writing!”

Because I was. Or, more accurate, I was listening. To what, I wasn’t really sure. To the story? To the voices of these new characters? To see if this plot had a pulse?

In his beautiful book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield shares his belief that each piece of music, art, poetry, already exists in some “higher sphere.” Yet it exists only as a potential work of art. It needs an artist to pay attention to the possibility of its existence; it needs an artist to pull it out of the sky and write it, play it, paint it, sing it.

Do I believe that? Maybe. Do I love the idea of that? Absolutely.

Pressfield uses the example of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, saying that a Muse whispered those notes–Duh Duh Duh DUH–in Beethoven’s ear, maybe into the ears of a lot of people, but Lucky Listening Ludvig was the only one who heard it.

What if that is true? What if each story we will write already exists–somewhere–but it needs us writers to nab it, reign it and get it down on paper? If that’s true, then we writers need  to listen for stories; if we don’t, some other Joe-Schmoe will hear it as it floats past his ears. And then he will get the seven-figure book deal.

But the art of listening is essential for other reasons, too. Reasons that are far less woo-woo.

Let’s talk for a minute about the act of listening. Stephen Cover, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says this:

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.

Yes. We writers need to listen with the intent to understand. We must listen to the world around us (nature, people, conflict, passion, love, fear), with the goal of gaining some understanding of its beauty and mess. The world informs and colors the stories we write. In return, if we listen well, we might write stories that inform and color the world.

So what do we listen to?

We writers must listen to that which is real (our passion for story, our curiosity, our desire to make sense of the world through our writing) so we can honor that which is begging to be made real (our characters, our story).

We must listen to the Story Structure Muse first. She cares about getting us from first scene to last. Then, once the house is cleaned and our characters have all showered, we can invite the Beautiful Writing Muse over for cappuccinos and apple fritters.

We must listen to our own voices reading our sentences aloud. We must listen to someone else reading our sentences aloud. As we listen, where does the story sag and drag? Do word choice and sentence structure make the story feel alive?

We must listen when our Muse (or our equivalent) is telling us to turn off the internet and sit our buns in that chair, and when she is telling us to power down our laptops and go for a brisk walk outside.

We must eavesdrop. All the time. Eavesdrop as we ride public transportation. In restaurants. At the gym. At the doctor’s office. As we do, we must listen not so much to the words, especially not the umms and “likes” and slangy bits, but to what people are NOT saying. Listen for the subtext.

Listen to become a better steward of words. Listen to the patter of rain and heartbeats and snow falling on the pavement. Snow doesn’t make a sound on pavement? Yes it does. Get closer. Lower your face to the pavement and tilt one ear. You’ll hear each flake hit. That’s what you do in wintertime: listen to the sounds of snow. In summertime, listen to the flutter of moth wings. The grunts of ants as they hoist that crust-crumb into the air. The growing of tomatoes. That’s right. Tomatoes grow so fast you can hear their cells dividing. Plus, the aroma of a tomato plant in midday August sun? Listen to that perfect smell of summertime.

To what should we not listen?

We should not listen to the phone or the dings of a new text or email whilst writing.

We should not listen to that nasty voice in our head. Mine, as I have mentioned, is called Ron. Ron’s an ass, and generally, I don’t listen to asses, but I admit it’s hard not to listen to someone who is whispering sugary whispers that sneak like earwigs into my ear canals. We must not listen to our personal versions of Ron.

We should not listen to our Ego because Egos don’t like rejection. As rejection comes (and it will) our Egos will try to convince us that writing is a bad idea, a bad choice, and we are stupid for even considering it. OR, when we have a bit of success, our Ego will try to convince us that we are the best thing ever. We’re not. No one is the best thing ever.

Do not listen to every bad review or negative criticism. Do not listen to every good review either. We must only listen to our trusted triumvirate: Story, God/Muse, Writing Partners. Aren’t they the only ones who matter?

While I’m not sure about the origin of the stories we write, I am convinced that writing and being a writer requires really good listening skills. And really good not-listening skills.

What about you? What do you listen for as you are writing? What is most difficult to block out? To what or whom do you listen in the various stages of your writing? What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever listened to? Any advice you’re glad you didn’t listen to? Please share!


Photo courtesy of Flickr’s Beverly and Pack.


About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter and is currently working on a novel titled BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES. Sarah is a terrible house-cleaner, a lover of chocolate and hats, and a self-professed cheapskate who has no trouble spending money on good chocolate and hats.


  1. says

    Thanks, Sarah. This is very timely for me, as I wrestle with my synopsis (and my resistance to even acknowledge, must less work on my synopsis). My version of Ron is having a field day. Yet there are other voices, that are hard to hear over the dinging emails, phone calls, everything else that needs to be done… The other voices tell me to listen to the story, to find its pulse, its bones, the sinews that make it move, the beating heart that gives it life. That’s what should go in the synopsis…

    And hey, WHERE did you get a Wonder Woman snuggie? :)

  2. says

    Wonderful reminder of the imperative of eavesdropping…on people, nature, the currents of quotidian events. Can’t create in a vacuum. Hoover up all the flotsam of life flowing up to our hips. From this come themes, situations, internal and external dialog. Good reminders, Sarah. Keep reminding us. We need it.

  3. says

    I had a freaky thing happen to me when I first started writing. I’d spent the previous fifteen + years working in a bustling plant, with machinery roaring and forklifts revving. When I came out, I discovered that all I needed to do was listen. And when I did, a story came tumbling out. Seriously, all I had to do was sit and let it flow–I was a mere scribe to the muse. I’ve been told it happens all the time, that it’s just our cognitive subconscious. But it was still freaky (and special) to me. One of the first writing books I ever read was War of Art (I’d been a big fan of Pressfield’s fiction). So I was totally onboard with the fact that the story already existed in another sphere.

    I used to fear that messing around with it would peeve my muse. But she’s shown me otherwise. What I wrote then was little more stuff happening–like listening to the transcripts of a tape, including dull minutia. It needed sharpening, depth and context (and no small amount of polishing and beautification for palatability). The story is not sacred–it wasn’t even fully formed. But it *was* a gift. What I’ve done in the years since it came tumbling out is not altering it, but making the gift worthy of its clumsy human handling.

    I still have to listen to make it worthy. So I am. Listening in salute–fist to heart–to the triumvirate! Great post, Sarah!

  4. says

    What a great shot in the arm today, Sarah. Thanks! I agree about the “listening to understand.” And I do think there is a Muse when writing fiction. But I find there is also a waiting or simmering to connect to the Muse. I had a name pop into my head one day: Renner. I didn’t know who or what this character was at all. Weeks went by and I kept asking, who is Renner? what is the story here? More weeks went by. Scenes and images came to me in the shower or walking in the sun and observing my own shadow. Turned out Renner was a young blind man and his story emerged through another character that revealed herself. It became a romance (an I usually write horror). The story was published at SmokeLong Quarterly. You are right, it’s all in the listening, the waiting, and the open mind.

  5. says

    Sarah, thanks for reminding us about one of the most overlooked skills writers must develop, it is so easy to get lost amid the noise of our daily routines and to get sucked into the social media void. We know that in good writing, the magic is in the details. The precise sound of a driving rain pelting a windshield, a whistling wind–these can only be accurately described through active listening. And as you so eloquently point out, lying down and clearing one’s head and listening to the mind at rest works wonders for creativity. We don’t listen enough; this is a societal problem. It is especially important, as you remind us, for writers to listen. Thanks for this post, Sarah.

  6. says

    I took a beginning writer to Starbucks one day. She wore a blindfold to avoid visual distractions. She sat with me for half an hour before I removed her blindfold and asked to write everything she remembered. She filled five pages over a second latte. I read her words. They were great, but the look on her face at what she missed when she wasn’t listening with her whole body astonished her. She went home and applied some of the lessons from that blindfolded half hour to her next draft. Much improved. Next task was to go to the same Starbucks with sound-blocking headphones. Same results. Try it. It can work for each of us. Thanks to Sarah for this excellent post.

  7. says

    Thanks for the reminder of WHY we need to listen.

    I’ve gotten into the good habit of not writing the next scene (I have three pov characters, and they alternate in an irregular fashion) until I hear the voice of the current character strongly again – but it’s more than their voice I need: I also need their story, and their compulsion for telling it.

    ‘Listen to understand’ is indeed the key. If a scene/story isn’t compelling me to listen as I write it, why would someone else want to read it?

    A thought-provoking post.

  8. Carmel says

    Great post, Sarah.

    I do believe there are ideas out there waiting for someone to grab and use. I can’t tell you how many times my husband has said, “I thought of that! Why didn’t I do something about it?” (Mostly because we can’t afford the patent fee.)

    But I believe in timing too, so when I get stressed and think I have to hurry up and write this story before someone else does, I remind myself there are still things I need to learn so they can be a part of the story.

  9. says

    Wow. I am so blessed by YOUR wisdom, dear WU’ers.

    And yes, several of you have mentioned the timing of a story. I am supposed to submit pages to my writing partners tonight (so we can read them ahead of our Friday meeting) but over the past two weeks, I’ve been doing more listening–and waiting–than writing.

    You can’t force someone or something to speak before that person or thing is ready.

    I’ve learned, when my kids walk in the door after their school day, NOT to ask them a billion questions because they are not ready to tell me about their day. Maybe they will share some details at bedtime, maybe they’ll share some details in March, totally out of the blue. People (and stories) share on their own time. Frustrating but true.

    Thank you for your lovely comments and personal anecdotes. I’m so grateful for your words!

  10. says

    I love what you shared about the source of story, and esp. about listening. We have geese here, lots of them, and the sound of their wings is astonishing. Also, lots of falling leaves. Tick tick tick. I’ve been an eavesdropper since I can remember, but not until I began writing fiction did I see it as a tool rather than a nasty little habit. I also related to lying on the floor, listening for whispers. When I’m stuck, I walk. Or sit and look at clouds. Its part of the job. And its a noisy world. The art of shutting out the mayhem to listen for beauty is the ultimate challenge. You expressed this beautifully.

  11. says

    Once I read your line, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,” I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It stuck in my brain and won’t leave. I believe it’s because I experience this almost every day with people I talk to as well as what “I” do when I’m having a conversation. I’m waiting to “reply” and that seems like a selfish way to talk to people. I’m going to listen more now that I’ve read your beautiful post.
    Thank you.

  12. Sarah B says

    Is listening one of the reasons people like to write in coffee shops? I never saw the attraction–I like to write alone, not in public–but last month I had an afternoon and nowhere else to go. I eavesdropped on a woman telling a friend about a young relative. She went on about what he looked like, his job, brought out pictures–and then she said, “He has more than one girlfriend at a time, and they don’t always know it. But he’s really a great guy….” Definitely some subtext there. I actually got some writing done, too.

    I love your point about listening to what people are not saying. Thanks!

  13. says

    Sarah Callender, how can anyone respond to your posts when they’re trying desperately to beat back images of Wonder Woman Snuggies and Bunions? Reading your post during lunchtime (in my cubicle) should be forbidden. Sitting in a library is off limits too! OMG!

    “What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever listened to?”

    First, focus on creating a great story, everything else, later
    Tension on every page
    Enjoy the work of storytelling. Immerse yourself, lose yourself
    Write first, edit later
    Eliminate needless words.
    Embrace the Naked Self (Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway)
    Retype a favorite Author’s chapter or book.
    Dissect your favorite authors book (The Night XXXXX XXXXogy)
    Take notes, keep a journal
    Believe in yourself, everyone has a story
    A major component to finding originality is about finding you.
    Plod through it, if you must!
    Oops, I’m sorry, “best writing advice” was singular.

    “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,”

    Back in my bible days I would use James 1:19 as a reminder.
    It was my mission in life- “to listen with intent to understand.”
    It’s really hard to give a sound reply without understanding.

    • says

      I do love that bit of scripture. If only more people employed that philosophy!

      Thanks, Brian, as always, for your great comment. I am very, very tempted to ask you why, if James was so good to you, your Bible days are now over, but that’s none of my business, now is it! No, Sarah, it’s not.

      • says

        If we ever get a chance to communicate in another atmoshpere, I will definitely share my reasons Sarah Callender. It doesn’t bother me that you asked. Honestly, the phrase “bible days” was bait. Hahaha. I remembered your response from another post. :O)

        I was wondering if you would respond to it.

  14. says

    Thank you for that quote about all art existing in another sphere. I can feel myself tapping into the other reality when I’m writing well, almost like pulling something down off a shelf, very freaky but very true.

    Fits nicely with one of my favorite quotes about writing from Eudora Welty: “Write about what you don’t know about what you know.”

    • says

      Is IS freaky! What is that thing, that feeling, that sensation? I’d really love to know.

      Sometimes my kids and I talk about our preferred Super Power. I usually go with “flight” or “Jedi mind tricks with NY publishers who are considering my manuscript.” Maybe, however, I should choose, “ability to see what’s in that creative sphere.” Can you imagine what that would look like? The sounds! The colors!

      Or maybe if I could see the potential of every piece of art that will ever be invented, I’d be too tempted to start hoarding, grabbing stories and art and music off of shelves like a deranged mother at Toys R Us when it’s 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 24, and there’s only ONE CABBAGE PATCH KID LEFT ON THAT SHELF!

      I think I’ll stick with “flight.”

  15. says


    So many people and things to listen to. Let me add this: listen to your own heart.

    It’s telling you how you feel. That’s important, since as you gather the sounds of the world and hear the voices of your characters, you feel something about each of those sounds.

    What you feel is relevant and possibly story material. Is there something in what you feel that you can give to your characters?

    I am listening to myself right now, but the lunchtime stomach rumbling is not especially interesting. But at least I am listening.

  16. says

    This is terrific advice not only for writing but for relationships. When I add to it the advice to always be honest in your writing (and in your relationships), I have the two pieces of advice that fuel my writing (and my relationships). Great article & much needed as I am in the middle of writing my first novel and struggling with descriptions. This will help.

  17. says

    Sarah, when I read your wise post, I first thought of Michelangelo, who insisted that The David was inside the marble all along, that his chisel would merely set the statue free. Then I (egotistically) thought of my own manuscript, in which one of the main characters is thrilled to be told that all the words in the world are already there, waiting for her to use. And then — most importantly — I applied the principles you mention to myself, and I realized something brand new, a tiny eureka moment, for which I thank you. When I write a draft, I often close my eyes and close my ears, position my fingers on the keyboard, and I inhabit the scene while I type away. Until reading your post just now, I didn’t fully recognize that I was doing this, observing and listening to that reality which lies just beyond.

    Thanks so much for opening my eyes so that when I close them again, I’ll know why!

    And by the way, deep in the woods Maine, at this time of year we chuck our Wonder Woman duds for red woolen union suits, with back flaps!

  18. says

    My heart swelled Grinch-style when I read “The grunts of ants as they hoist that crust-crumb into the air.” I’ve stolen that one and implanted it in my brain as a reminder to listen. Thanks for this inspiring post. Also, you have to reveal where you scored the WW snuggie! Gotta have me one!

    Sophia Ryan
    –She Likes It Irish

  19. says

    Sarah, that might explain why so many of us have similar ideas … perhaps the universe is sending us stories. All I can say is that my best writing comes from a place of quiet, when I can hear my own thoughts or the still, small voice of God. My heart! This is partly why I enjoy washing dishes or taking a walk in silence. We do not cultivate enough silence in our lives. I think when we do, whether it’s in Wonder Woman outfits or pajamas, we can hear the stories. Great post.

  20. Kate Kimball says


    Your post today draws me out of my longtime lurking to comment. I’m working (as in a do-loop of re-imagining, rewriting, reconsidering) my first novel. The first draft suffered greatly from the lack of an outline, so I’ve been trying to create one. But I apparently have extra strands of pantser DNA working against me and a shredder full of failed attempts.

    Your post as well as Donald’s comment finally made me see what we missing: my listening heart. I listen (some of the time) when I write scenes, which is why I love fiction. Give me a blank page and I lean into the adventure. But give me a blank page for an outline, and I lose eye contact and find the dirty yellow linoleum tiles on the floor fascinating.

    Listening as I outline gives me a fresh path to follow, one that may lead to surprise and mystery. What a relief! Thank you.

    • says

      Welcome, Kate! Once you switch from lurker to commenter, you’ll never go back. ;)

      Loved your comment. If you find yourself losing eye contact with an outline, try tricking yourself into thinking that plotting is fun! and pretty!

      On my current book, I used butcher paper, index cards, highlighters, crayons and lots of tape. It made the whole process feel a lot more creative. Plus, color coding themes on index cards made me see the flow of certain theme threads.

      So happy you’re here!

  21. says

    Brilliant, and so true. When I truly find peace and find my internal quiet that’s when my characters start talking, talking such that I hear their true voices. I have to be careful, of course, to not disturb them, for as the minutes pass my eyes alight, the scene appearing before my eyes. It’s only then that I dare start writing without the fear the story will be lost. And I must type swiftly because they don’t always wait for me. Yes, sometimes there is magic and sometimes I first hear it. Thank you for a wonderful post.

  22. says

    Great post, Sarah! Years ago, an artist friend told me she had a “vision” of a painting, done as three panels. She ignored it, and a few months later attended a seminar with an art room…and there it was: the exact painting, in three panels.

    It pays to listen (and then act on it!) Vaughan is right–it’s a *gift.*