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Open Your Ears! Close Your Ears!

dog listening [1]A 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 [2] 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 [3].

About Sarah Callender [4]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.