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Listening Hard to Write Well

The creative act of capturing meanings between silences

Photo by Taha on Unsplash

The acclaimed writer Eudora Welty once noted that “Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them.”

Wow. There’s so much for a writer to unpack in this brief but profound observation. How many times have I rushed headlong into drafting a novel without taking time to listen for the real story — the story behind the story?

Welty wrote often about characters who were not listened to, but of course, that is entirely different from listening for the emotional beats that drive a story forward; the unspoken longings that define characters in a subterranean way; and source material that may come from anywhere and everywhere.

Welty had a way of boiling down the power of listening to a primal force: “Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”

That’s campfire stuff. It seems really basic. Yet I think we need to be quite deliberate in how we address listening in our writing, in particular. After all, listening is mysterious — both active and passive, capable of generating strong emotion or motivating us to turn away and tune out. Listening is hearing, yet also ignoring. It’s about remembering as well as forgetting. By listening, we capture pointless earworms that loop on and on. Listening can also be traumatic.

I think there’s a strong case to add listening to the common list of five senses — hearing, sight, smell, touch, and taste. After all, the senses are the building blocks of fiction. Even in the most far-out, world-building sci-fi novels, the writer still grounds the reader in her senses, whether it’s the cold blackness of space or the terrifying grip of alien tentacles.

As Madeleine L’Engle wrote, rather cryptically, but with a nod to the all-encompassing nature of listening well, “We are listening. To the sun. To the stars. To the wind.”

The same holds for experimental fiction. A reader may labor to follow the thread of a novel like James Joyce’s Ulysses, but the book is rife with familiar senses. “Get a light snack in Davy Byrne’s…Had a good breakfast…Gulp. Grub. Gulp. Gobstuff.”

But while we’re at it, why limit ourselves to just five or even six basic senses in the first place? We seem to forget that between Aristotle and Shakespeare, these senses were only a starting point. There were, for instance, the “wits,” including imagination, fantasy, estimation (instinct), and memory. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 141, the poet revels in pitting the lover’s senses and wits against the power of his heart:

But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
Who leaves unsway’d the likeness of a man,
Thy proud heart’s slave and vassal wretch to be…

So that’s ten sensibilities to play with (five senses, five wits). As writers, we should make a point of drawing upon all of these in the worlds and characters we create. Surely there’s room to include listening among them — listening to sharpen our powers of observation as writers, while also giving our characters room to listen to words spoken and unspoken.

How do we put that into practice? How can we listen better, as writers, and weave that capacity into our work? I’ve spent the last five years or so in a self-directed apprenticeship, learning to write fiction. (I view apprenticeship as a lifelong condition.) Only recently, as I embark on my fifth book, have I recognized the elemental necessity of imbuing a sense of wit into every scene, every story arc, and at the risk of seeming to embrace purple prose, every sentence.

I used to focus on moving the story forward and hitting beats so quickly, I denied the reader a chance to feel with the character. I denied my characters a chance to feel deeply, as well. I wrote scenes that were more like glancing blows — too quick to track, too quick to offer the rewards of connection. One of my editors harangued me to let my protagonist mourn the loss of her parents, instead of leaving such a life-changing event behind. Do you think?

I’m learning to change my ways. It’s dawned on me (a big “duh” moment) that I need to get down in the emotional trenches with each of my characters, view the world through their eyes, and give them a chance to report back to the world they’re in. Whether that’s through deceit, self-deception, brutal honesty, violent push-back — anything’s possible.

In short, I’m finally learning to listen to my characters — who they are, what they need, what their wounds are. I could not do that without first, or perhaps simultaneously, listening to the world around me. In this sense, listening as a prelude to writing — as a means of feeding our writing — means many things, from hearing overheard snatches of conversations among strangers to recalling voices inside our own dreams.

The Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti once asked, “Is it not important to find out how to listen not only to what is being said but to everything — to the noise in the streets, to the chatter of birds, to the noise of the tramcar, to the restless sea…?”

For a writer, it absolutely is important to listen as much as we can, as widely as we can, and to pay attention to whatever the world tells us.

This essay originally appeared as a blog post on Women Writers, Women’s Books.



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Amy L. Bernstein

Amy L. Bernstein

I write stories that let you feel and make you think. Fiction, essays, poems. Whatever the moment — or zeitgeist — requires. More at