Listening or Waiting to Talk?

One of the best tools a writer can learn is the art of listening.  Actually, learning to listen is a useful tool for any human, period.  I spent the weekend in a workshop with people who had varying degrees of skills in listening, which has had me pondering the subject.

As my good and wise friend (and leader of the workshop) Mary-Suzanne pointed out, most of us spend time waiting to talk instead of actually listening.  I’ve watched other people do this and I know that I myself do it all the time–and I pride myself in being a good listener.

Instead of actually listening and taking in what the other person is saying, our minds race.  We start formulating what we want to say in return, or cataloging all the similar experiences that we have had so that we can talk about them when the other person shuts up.  Or maybe we worry that we don’t have anything to say, or that we’ll be expected to have something to say and nothing will come out.  We worry about what we look like or maybe we’re even worrying about something we did before the current conversation.

If we’re not worrying about ourselves, we may well be judging the person we are supposedly listening to.  We judge the speed of their delivery, or think dire thoughts about the awful outfit they have on.  We judge the funny expressions they make as they talk.  Or the way they are shredding their napkin as they speak.

But all of this is worrying and judging, not listening. 

Why does listening matter to a writer?

Because writers need to observe the world and everything and everyone in it in order to gather material.  Writers need to listen to conversations of others to obtain an ear for dialogue and how people interact with each other.  We need to listen to others in order to understand what it is to be human.  Because, after all, that is what writing is all about–describing the human condition.

So start schooling yourself in the art of listening.  How to do this is a bit harder to describe than telling people they should do this, I will admit.  A quick search of the internet netted mostly descriptions for college students listening to instructors lecture.  But this site seems to have some good advice about interpersonal listening.

The gist of it, of course, is staying present and not letting all your mental chatter distract you, whether that mental chatter is worrying about yourself or judging the speaker.  You might just be surprised what happens when you start listening deeply to the world around you.

Praise is Good and Change is Scary

Geez, things change in an instant.   David Cook is no longer the front-runner to be the next American Idol (but I still think he should be, because he has way more artistic integrity than the pipsqueak David Archuleta and I voted for him a gazillion times anyway) and suddenly the TypePad interface is completely different.  Cool, but completely different.  It always takes me awhile to embrace changes like these.

The above was the Change is Scary part of this post.  Now we get to the important part–the Praise is Good part.  The wonderful Lori devoted an entire blog post to me today.  (Pause for applause, please–I found the new make a link button and guess what?  You can now open it in a new window.) 

Lori won the contest I held awhile back and at first she was going to take a free coaching session as her prize but then she decided to take me up on my offer of reading the first 20 pages of her novel.   It was an absolute pleasure to read her work but I always hold my breath a little after I deliver a critique.  When I read a writer's work I do my utmost to be scrupulously honest and also supportive and encouraging.

The MFA program I attended operated on the principle that a supportive environment is just as good, if not better, at turning out fine writers than a harshly critical one and I like to uphold those values in my own teaching.  However, what might seem supportive and encouraging and honest to me might read as scathing to you–particularly if you are not used to have your work critiqued. 

My most favorite response to a critique is when someone says that it inspired them to get back to the project with renewed vigor and that is what Lori said today.  So I'm basking just as much as Lori is today–its what makes this work I do worthwhile.

Let me also mention the other winners of the contest.  Lauri also sent me the first chapter of her novel and it was great, too.  I don't know what it is with the talented Lauri/Loris who read this blog, but I'm grateful for them.

And finally, I owe Jen and BellaVida coaching sessions.  Email me, you guys! 

Tips For Writing: Overcoming Resistance

I’m taking a quick break from my current ghostwriting project to give you a tip for writing, specifically, overcoming resistance.

But first, I want to remind you to enter my writing contest.  Its easy–all you have to do is answer a few simple questions in the comment area and you’ll be entered in a drawing for the prize of a free coaching session.  The post is called  Another Writing Contest: What Are Your Writing Problems? and you can read it here.

Thank you to everyone who has commented so far–I’ll be responding to comments soon and I so appreciate y’all taking the time to look at the survey.

Now, onto writing resistance.  This is a tip that I learned from my wonderful coach, Tess Daniel, and like everything that she teaches me, it applies to every aspect of life.   But, like pretty much everything that comes my way, I look at it through the lens of writing.

If you are stuck and can’t seem do move yourself forward in your writing project, ask yourself one simple question:

Do I know what the next step is?

Do you know what scene comes next in the novel?  Or what character you need to introduce?  Do you need to rewrite the current chapter before you move forward?  Or do you just need to keep writing and get words on paper? 

The good news is, if you know what the next step is, odds are that you aren’t blocked.  You know what to do, you just aren’t doing it.  At least you have something to work with!  And one way to get yourself to work again is take pen in hand, number a piece of paper from one to ten, and quickly, write all the reasons you are not taking this next step.

One of two things will happen:  you’ll either realize there is a very practical reason that you aren’t taking that step, or you’ll realize that in truth, you were wrong. 

The practical reason is the easy one.  You don’t have a fact you need, or you need to print out the chapter to edit it and you don’t have enough ink in the printer.  That kind of thing.  Once it is committed to paper, its easy to see what you need to do and remedy it.  Sometimes we just get so overwhelmed we go into brain fog and we can’t see the forest for the trees, or the tree for the forest.

If you uncover reason number two, that you were wrong, that’s really not so bad either, because at least now you know.  You might have been laboring under the delusion that your characters needed to go to a funeral, for instance, when in reality that character isn’t dead.

Putting things down on paper has a way of uncovering what you need to know.  But what if you asked yourself the above question,  do I know what the next step is?  and the answer was no?

Well, sorry, you’re out of luck.  No, I’m just kidding.  The wonderful thing about being creative is that there is always an answer.  While not knowing is the wee-est bit more complicated than knowing, it is also in some ways more freeing.  If you don’t know what the answer is, after all, you can make anything up.

And that is what I recommend for not knowing–make it up.    Just pretend you know the answer and write it down.  If you knew what was supposed to happen next in your novel, what would happen?  If that feels like too much pressure, ask yourself what the silliest thing that could possibly happen be?  Write it down.  Go to the thesaurus or dictionary, open it randomly and write down a word.  Now do that two more times and make it into a sentence.  Set your timer for 15 minutes and write.  The idea here is to start writing, in case you hadn’t guessed.  Start putting words on paper and see what happens.

This is a gentle way to trick the brain.  No pressure, no worries about figuring what is supposed to happen next in the novel (or your life, for that matter).  All you are doing is playing with words, putting them down on paper.

It may take several of these brain-tricking Not Really Writing Sessions in order for the old brain to start feeling comfortable enough to engage with the novel or short story or article you are trying to write, but eventually it will.

And now that I have given my brain a bit of a break, I’m off to work on the ghosting project again.