Bring Your Writing Alive by Talking Less, Hearing More
Some days I have to stop myself.
In the thick of an interview recently, my mind was fully eager and engaged. My subject was an artist who was gentle and kind but quiet.
When did you start painting? I asked.
She gave a reasonable but brief response.
Why do you like to paint?
Her reply was tepid, with little emotion.
Wanting to get to the heart of her work, I kept digging for more. I sensed there was more meat beneath her brevity. With each question, my mind was racing for the next “better” query, when I finally stopped myself.
I paused, held my tongue, and let silence come between us. Her lukewarm response lingered between us. It was a moment that felt like ten minutes.
Without another word exchanged, the space enlarged for her to reflect, and ultimately open up. She told a story I would not have imagined, with details and feeling that was beyond any question I could have asked.
In writing and in life, I’ve learned I need to talk less, listen more.
As writers before we even begin the interview, we often have a storyline in mind. If we’ve done our background work — website search, chat with friends, search for previous coverage — we have a good sense of our subject. But what can happen is that we have perception before process. We think we know what we need when we don’t fully know what we have.
“Listening is receptivity,” says Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, a guidebook that has served as the foundation of my writing practice. “The deeper you listen, the better you can write.
“When you listen so deeply to the space around you that it fills you, and when you write, it pours out of you. If you can capture that reality around you, your writing needs nothing else,” she writes. “You don’t only listen to the person speaking to you across the table, but simultaneously listen to the air, the chair, and the door. And go beyond the door. Take in the sound of the season, the sound of the color coming in through the windows. Listen to the past, future, and present right where you are. Listen with your whole body, not only with your ears, but with your hands, your face, and the back of your neck.”
To be more than routine scribes, our listening, like our writing, must be consistently exercised.
As writers, we need to do three essential things: read a lot, write a lot, and listen well.