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

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The Stalker

Stalker

If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”

—Barry Lopez
(as Badger, in Crow and Weasel)

Since starting this blog this past week,  I have been inundated with emails. And, as you can imagine, people were sharing that there was a story to be told, a story that no one knew, a story that scared them, would unravel their family or the worst of all…a story that the writer was afraid would be….boring. How many of us tell ourselves every day that our story is not interesting enough, or that “no one would want to hear about MY life”?

Well, I’m here to say that fear to tell your story, since you are certain it will be a snoozer…is a cop out.  And the second thing I am here to tell you is …you are not telling the story for someone else. You are telling your story for you, your health, your liberation, to find the humor in the tragedy and to simply honor that it is in fact the story you were born to live. Telling our stories is a sign of respect and self-love. And in the end how you share it is up to you.

So, now that we are looking at the obstacles to recording, writing, filming, painting your stories we want to take a peek at why in the world you would want to tall a story that is a secret or is only garnishing the pages of your journals, filling the boxes of photos you have kept for the entire family for a lifetime or is a story that is just being ignored.

The answer is, because we were all born to tell the stories we have been given and entrusted with and because the story is an entity with life and breath and who needs to be released to a life outside your mind and body and heart. Why? So that we all can be challenged, changed and healed. Story is your medicine and your story is someone else’s medicine in this world as well.

And, I am going to bet that many of you feel like your story haunts you, chasing you in your dream life, nudging you awake, making you want to write down ideas while driving or washing the dishes. Right?  Your stories are relentless stalkers.

“Australian Aborigines say that the big stories—the stories worth telling and retelling, the ones in which you may find the meaning of your life—are forever stalking the right teller, sniffing and tracking like predators, hunting their prey in the bush.”

—Robert Moss, Dreamgates

Real quick, lets just strip away the thoughts that keep us from breathing life into our stories. Thoughts about fear are simply walls between the mind and our heart. We keep these walls of fear up so we don’t have to feel what is on the other side of the imagined fear.  Took me three decades as a psychologist to get that one.

stalking cartoon

Lets look at the top three fears and just exorcise them, like taking off a Band-aid: Fast and then put some ointment on it and go about living and writing or speaking your story. What are the top reasons you may not be telling your story? We will get the biggest one out-of-the-way first,

I am not a good writer”.  Answer.  No one is and they learn to be.

I will be embarrassed.”   Many people are embarrassed to tell their real story. Did anyone see the excruciating and amazing film version of the book, August: In Osage County, with Meryl Streep? This Pulitzer Prize winning story was semi-autobiographical and cut to the jugular of our culture. And you can bet the writing of it was no picnic for Tracy Letts. When you open up the windows to your soul and share your inner secret struggles and how you overcame the demons of fear, self-doubt, inadequacy, bad decisions, personal failures and weaknesses you gain the respect of everyone just like you…which is…. everyone.

“The truth will come out and offend people.”  Many people are afraid to tell the truth because they don’t want to offend others.  People wait until a family member passes away before they are willing to tell the true story of their childhood.  It might be an ex-spouse they are afraid will contradict their story or concern about a child, a college buddy or a colleague. We are afraid people will lose respect for us when we tell the truth, blow the whistle on family or friends, when actually the opposite is true.  The important thing is not to let fear stop you from telling your story.  The world needs to hear your story, and you are the only one who can tell it.

And, the heavy hitters as writers in our culture are never immune to doubt and fear. This is what a few of them have to say:

“For me, putting my work out there is a risk, and it can be scary.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Maya Angelou

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”

Stephen King

“My post-memoir mental state is a mixture of euphoria, disbelief, accomplishment, confusion, titillation, exhaustion and shame.”  Tom Robbins

All good writers started somewhere and in most cases if their knees were not knocking then someone should have poked them with a “pen” to see if they were still alive. We all quake at the first leap into the unknown. And for those of us who now write as a way of life we can tell you two things are true: First, that with every leap, which is usually every day you sit down to write or paint or speak, you act as if you have never leapt before and panic. Second, half way down after you have jumped, some illusive parachute opens over head and breaks the fall, allowing you to run headlong into the unknown without too many bruises.

I think they call this…Grace.

jump off cliff