Listen to What I Hear

Learn to Listen

“Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, “’Listen to me.’”—Jhumpa Lahiri

I think the part of Christmas that has stayed with me since childhood, are the Christmas Carols that seem to live in me at a cellular level. All the music from oldies with Bing Crosby and White Christmas to Mannheim Steamroller can conjure place, people and moments that I have no need of a camera to instantly recall.

Each song has a story attached to it from my life. And whether is was a Christmas meltdown at the dinner table over some disappointment regarding presents, or the first Christmas with my daughters bright eyes wide open as they tip-toed down the stairs of our farmhouse in Maine to see what Santa had brought and whether the Reindeer had been well fed, I can recall the Technicolor of the moment as soon as Nate King Cole starts in with “chestnuts roasting by an open fire”.

I listened to these songs over and over, year after year. And in the listening I hear new things each time. Songs are story. Songs are assembled with tune, voice and words to transport. And for a writer, the story on the page is no different. Every amazing book we read or write and every extraordinary story we tell has a magic ingredient which makes the magic stand out: That magic ingredient lies in our capacity to listen.

I know that most of what I talk to writers about is how to tell the story, about great characters, tension, payoff and honesty. But none of this happens at the level that is possible for a writer without the deep capacity to listen. Listening takes pausing. Breathing. Waiting for the muse.

First and foremost, as a writer, I need to listen to my own intuition if I stumble on the direction of my story. I need to pause to listen to my characters whisper in my ear how they want to be developed. I need to listen to my own desire for what I want to say and what I don’t want to say. Every day. I need to be willing to listen to everything.

But, listening comes in layers. We can hear ourselves say “Oh that won’t be interesting”, or “I cannot share that much, be that vulnerable in my writing”. When this ultimately happens, oh pretty much every day, we have a goldmine moment to listen at a deeper level. Our unconscious selves long to be given a stage on which to express itself and when any one of us decides to write a story all the voices that we have silenced will try spill out onto the page.

If we can stay with what we are resisting and get to the bottom of why we are saying “no”, “I cannot do that”, “I am afraid”, then we can unearth parts of our stories, our characters and ourselves that become the magic and the real juice of our writing. Many of us as writers struggle to stay ruthlessly honest with ourselves and truly listen beyond our fears of being literarily naked.

The other part of listening as a writer is to make sure you have someone read your writing out loud and you listen to the story you are writing unfold. Hearing your words, the words of your characters and absorbing the writing as if you are the reader is a powerful way to tune up your writing style and to hear the places you need to improve.

And at the end of the day whether you are a writer or not, listening and hearing from a deep heartfelt level of awareness and presence is what we need in all our relationships, friendships, marriages, workplaces and schools. The gift of listening is transformative.

Bradbury quote

The Telling Room

selectric typewriter

My generation had no idea that the age of the computer was coming or what it would mean. Back then spelling was a mandatory class we took. We could not go into middle school without getting a passing grade in “penmanship”. I remember practicing my upper case and lower case letters on lined paper over and over again until all my words flowed like little art forms onto the page without effort. The act of writing with a favorite pen and crafting a story for school magically changed brain chemistry and balanced right and left-brain. But, now days, writing on anything other than a computer is rare and making up stories is becoming rare as well.

Then in college we had Selectric Typewriters that were all the rage, which replaced the typewriters that had spools of carbon ribbon used by Hemingway. Then came the Brother Word Processor and life was about to change forever.

Fast forward to my daughter’s generation who had computers in school, spell-check and there were no spelling and grammar classes or cursive in school. In fact unintelligible printing replaced cursive and the intimate relationship between a well-sharpened pencil tucked neatly in a row inside of a wooden pencil box put to a blank piece of paper all but disappeared. In fact reading books began to disappear and daydreaming and imaginative story telling was capsized by video games and television.

The art of storytelling is under siege and in fact the power of storytelling is rapidly becoming a lost personal art, and an underutilized healing tool in our society. Even movies are slowly giving way to franchised super hero trilogies and beyond that dominate the world of storytelling on the big screen.

But, there are those who want to teach storytelling to kids and young adults as a means to unlock creativity, unleash personal power and heal lives. One such teacher and writer is Susan Conley, a co-founder of The Telling Room, a creative writing lab in Portland, Maine who believes in the power of stories to transform lives and change communities.  She also believes that writing and storytelling healed her from cancer. Here is her story on TED:

Susan served as the executive director of The Telling Room for its first two years of life before moving to China, where she wrote a memoir titled The Foremost Good Fortune (Knopf, 2011). This book chronicles the years Susan, her husband and two young boys lived in Beijing, learned Mandarin, set out on The Hunt for the Greatest Dumpling in China, and contended with Susan’s cancer diagnosis. The book was excerpted in The New York Times Magazine and The Daily Beast and was voted a Goodreads’ Choice Award Winner for Best Travel and Outdoor Books of 2011.

Susan has been the recipient of two MacDowell Colony residencies, a Breadloaf Writer’s Fellowship and a Massachusetts Arts Council Grant. Maine Today Media gave Susan a 2011 “Greatest Women of Maine” Award. A graduate of Middlebury College and San Diego State University, Susan has taught creative writing and literature seminars at Emerson College, as well as at Harvard’s Teachers as Scholar’s Program. She continues to teach all flavors of writing workshops at The Telling Room and has a novel forthcoming from Knopf in the spring of 2013. Susan lives in Portland with her husband, Tony Kieffer, and their two boys ages 9 and 11, who are avid story tellers themselves and not at all sick of dumplings.

http://www.tellingroom.org/

Quantum Storytelling

Man-points-toward-galaxy-in-sc-32849888

I sat in a kind of stupor as the credits rolled, the crowd silently leaving the theater. I had a feeling that being in Oklahoma at the time, the majority of the moviegoers were baffled by what they had just seen. No one was talking, something had happened. I was the only one still in my seat. I had sat through three hours and two full bags of popcorn watching Interstellar. Not because Matthew Mcconaughey is beautiful or talented but because I knew that embedded in this film was far more than star power.

I am not going to review the movie here. But, I want to talk about how story can wake you up. Interstellar was written and directed by the Christopher Nolan who did Inception. Most of us know how it felt to watch that movie and witness something just outside of our grasp, but mesmerizing and intriguing enough to keep us glued to our movie seat. Interstellar was no different for me but far more powerful since it is a premier example of how story can change us at every level. I mean really change us.

That any filmmaker would attempt to take me into the heart of quantum physics and nudge me toward a new and more defined perception of time and space gets my attention. Flaws of moviemaking aside, I loved one particular thing about this story: That it revealed what the shift on our planet and in our own DNA as humans may be all about. And that is powerful.

I find myself gravitating to substance instead of the entertainment value of story. And Interstellar seemed to allow me to sink into the big questions of life, the unanswered questions, the heroic ones and the questions we all fear to really look into the heart of.   Questions of where do we come from, why are we here, what is god, are we alone in the Universe, what is beyond three dimensional existence, is there more than one Maya in the solar system and what does relativity and gravity have to do with everything? As for me, those are the only questions I am interested in.

So when I took the leap three months ago out of the world of psychotherapy and embraced what I truly love the most in life, I did so with the understanding that story would heal us as individuals and story would heal the planet in ways that are ineffable, illusive, complex and sometimes simply a mystery.

I held up a torch in my life to ask for stories to come to me. I held tight to my deep love and passion for stories of transformation, survival, hope and love as the greatest power in the Universe as I intended to write only these stories, and help others bring their amazing adventures and dreams into reality. I got far more than I bargained for. Gratefully.

People from all over the world are finding me in some of the most unusual ways. Phone calls and emails from those who suddenly feel ready to reveal secrets of the Universe only they have been entrusted with, stories of unparalleled heroism that will change lives and creative dreams and fantasies that speak to transforming our own natures from war to love, and from fear to magic.

I am pausing to allow myself to feel how very important each one of these stories are and how I can be a part of birthing weapons of mass love and power which is the medicine our planet needs. Medicine the storyteller needs as well, which will affect them on the deepest level imaginable and affect the lives of their families.

Storytelling is a sacred event. I cannot urge everyone enough to begin to see the stories that you have lived or imagined as sacred energy that you were entrusted with long before you were born.   You alone are the keeper of your own unique story of bravery, courage, pain and suffering, triumph of the spirit, love and lost love, finding god or becoming god.

The energy inherent in a great story or film creates a resonant response in our physical bodies, our thoughts and our hearts. That resonant energy begins a cascading shift and change in our own cellular nature. We are not only changed emotionally or intellectually when we read or watch an amazing story, we are changed energetically and physically. This is why I would always caution against the Horror and Death Film. We are changed in ways that only fear can accomplish when we subject ourselves to the images that these films provide in abundance.

And fear releases adrenaline and then fear becomes an addiction to the thrill of the adrenaline. In the end we are physically, emotionally and spiritually changed. The same can be said for the stories that we need far more: Stories of love and hope and courage. Stories of overcoming the unthinkable.

So, I am blessed to be given the opportunity to help any storyteller birth what is uniquely their primary and most powerful contribution to their legacy on this planet: A personal story that will resonate with the people who have simply been waiting for your story and just have not known it.

Later this week I will post under Screenplays the movies that are must sees and the books that should be movies. We all need food for the soul since our souls are under siege by technology and a planet in peril. Your story is a life raft, is a story to help each of us remember who we are, who we were born to be and who we have yet to become. Bravo to our brave storytellers.

Find your voice