“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.