Do You Listen Enough?

Part one:

There is much to be said about being quiet.  In the quiet there are things to be heard, soft, little voices of things that need to be observed and processed but which will be lost in the mayhem of an average day’s activity if allowed to be consumed by distraction.  I suppose for the average human being – the one who has a job which pays for all of the trappings required for a typical life (namely a place to live, food, and probably more than enough “stuff”) – doesn’t really have much use for the quieter side of living.  Those small voices are just the mutterings of impending lunacy after all, and what is your average desk jockey going to do with a meadow full of original ideas anyway?

But listen up, dear artist!  You are not excused from listening to little voice.  Little voice is something you are required to pay heed to.  Little voice differs from other voices because little voice holds all of the details that make up the proper story.  But it takes real effort to listen to little voice.  Sitting idly by and thinking about other things such as unfinished chores, money worries, the status of one’s love life, etc. is not listening.  Until all of that other stuff is cleared away and you-the-artist, the craftsman, have grown quiet the little voice will continue to struggle to be heard.

Little voice is something special.  Call it inspiration, the muse, creative genius or whatever name you want to give it, but what we are talking about in the end is the internal narrative which exists in all people, but for which the artist must eventually be accountable.  Joseph Campbell, the great twentieth century intellectual mythologist, referred to this calling in a different way when he talked about the life of the hero’s journey.  The hero’s journey, in fact, is precisely what our characters experience in the course of our stories.  It is the details of their lives which make our stories unique and interesting.  These details manifest themselves in our psyche where they develop over the course of our own life experiences.  After we have assimilated these details and processed them fully into  our subconscious, little voice begins to retell them, weaving a history, perhaps many histories, which we can capture and reconstruct as “fictional” tales the same way a painter gathers pigments and shapes and shadows to compose a picture.  In this way we become a conduit for new stories based on these experiences, refashioned by little voice, which we then tell in a myriad of new ways.  And so the act of writing becomes as much a translation of the details of our subconscious as it is an act of imagination.  Certainly we can struggle to create stories out of nothing more than what we are able to make up as we go, but to be really believable we must ultimately listen, deeply and sincerely, to little voice, in effect getting out of our way so the “truth” can be told.

Part two:

I am all about listening to little voice, but I have to admit to being hard-headed about something that I believe all writers should engage in: writing practice.  To be completely honest I had a minor revelation about this very topic just last night.  I was reading more Natalie Goldberg, having read Wild Mind this winter, and in her first great work, Writing Down the Bones, she emphasizes heavily the need for writers to spend ten to thirty minutes per day in writing practice.  This is simply the act of clearing our minds for writing by getting all of the junk out of our heads ahead of time.  By writing non-stop, and with no filter, we clear the webs of distraction from our minds prior to getting to the serious work of the project at hand.  Goldberg swears by it, and now that I have finally really heard what she is saying about writing practice I admit that it makes perfect sense.  Every other practitioner of craft practices at least as much as they perform.

Writing practice does something else for we creatives besides clearing our minds of distraction.  Writing practice puts us in touch with  little voice.  As we sort through the chaff of our thoughts and distractions we unearth the hard riches of little voice.  As we sit at our writing desk and the morning light turns warm in the early afternoon we find ourselves engaged in the cottony haze of the creative conscience so much that the smallest interruption of a loved one at the door is a cold snap in the rhythm of our reverie.  But by investing in the process of arriving at this moment through practice and consistency we find it much easier to get back to that place, and so we are in control of our creative life and can allow the current of creativity to continue almost at will.  This is especially important for young (by which I mean new) writers who very often feel that the effort of getting started is so great most of the time, and the interruption so easy, that little work gets done over years of trying, and sometimes they believe it is easier to surrender than to struggle on one more week.  To them I say, grow quiet, listen, practice.

Another note about daily practice: Julia Cameron says as much in her landmark work The Artist’s Way where she advises a daily regimen of three pages first thing in the morning.  Believe me, that feels like a lot of work, but the result is that the slough of a busy mind is more easily discarded so that the real work can be done without the weight of a cluttered mind.

As for the question at hand – do you listen enough? – I venture to guess probably not.  This is not to suggest you, or I, or anyone is especially rude.  Most people simply are not in the habit of quieting their minds long enough to really see what’s there.  Through writing practice and attentiveness to the little voices of our creative subconscious, we stand to reap the benefits of a free investment.  The real beauty then is that progress becomes easier, command of our creative process is more robust, and ultimately, as I recently saw quoted elsewhere – years from now you will still fret and worry as a creative, but you will worry about the writing, and no longer about being a writer.

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4 comments on “Do You Listen Enough?

  1. Ryan says:

    Great expression of your thoughts and advice on the craft of writing. I thought when I boosted you up a tree to peer in a birds nest, or helped you bottle ants to be able to see the way they dig new tunnels, was prepping you to be a machinist or something mundane. Proud daddy.

  2. When I saw the headline for this post, I thought you were going in a completely different direction…which has (once again) inspired a future post on my own blog, One Million Words.

    I absolutely agree with the advice to tackle writing first thing in the morning, if possible. My writing schedule doesn’t allow for that every day, alas, but on the days that it does, I find I am much more productive (e.g., less distracted) than on the days when I wait until the end of the day, after the kids are in bed, and so forth.

    And there’s nothing quite like going into the office knowing I’ve already accomplished much.

  3. Marisa says:

    This is such a beautiful post…and I take it Ryan is your dad or son…his reply just makes me want to cry for the beauty of it.

    B/c of the din of my ‘working life’ the listening I am most mindful of is in the faces, tone of voice & body language of the people I encounter all day and finding beauty in the minute (accent on the U – not 60 seconds-) otherwise mundane objects around me. That is why my most active outlet is photography. A co-worker of mine who embodies my muse has these eyes you wouldn’t believe, a lamp, a box of pencils, the way the chairs are stacked on the rack, lines & symmetry. Also the fear & trepidation in the voices of the people I encounter. I don’t always “hear” correctly when I think I’m “listening.” But my new thing is to remove the filter that goes from my brain to my mouth & “let it out” outloud. And THIS, my friend, has been a beautiful thing. To watch a twinkle light up in a person’s face & spirit has brought new meaning to my existence 8 hours a day!!! Do you remember Leo Buscaglia from the 70’s-80’s ??

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