Listen. What do you hear? Are you surrounded by traffic? By noise? Of what? What is the furthest sound that you can hear? And what are the closer sounds? The closest? Can you hear your own breath? Can you hear your heart beating? Listen.
At the heart of writing is listening. Writers, as many other artists, pay attention. We observe minutely. We listen deeply. It is this profound attention and listening that leads to the empathy that is essential to the characters we birth in novels, the personae we express in poetry, the engagement we invite in essays …
Finding the space of deep listening
We cannot listen when we are rushing around from task to task. We cannot listen when we are distracted and our attention fragments. To listen in ways that open up our creativity and lives we need to shift into a slower sense of time where we can pay deep attention.
Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present, wrote Camus. The present can seem harsh at the moment, but we need to stay with it if we are to have any hope of transforming it. Together we hold the story of future humanity in our souls and imaginations, but only if we take the time to listen to the story that needs healing.
And when we listen to those stories — of habitats being destroyed leaving us vulnerable to new pandemics while other species are destroyed, of ozone depletion and seas full of plastic, of animals treated with brutality so they can be commodified for a mass market, of homes bombed and refugees treated as worse than scum, of people enslaved for sex or their labour … we will need respite and solace.
To take rest and find support as we listen is not an act of forgetfulness or uncaring, but is a way to nurture well-being, our own, and that of your loved ones, and any whose lives you can touch. If we are to be writers with the energy, courage and resilience to listen then we also need to do whatever we can to live with more kindness and connection, to our inner lives, as well as to those around us and to the planet. We need community and support and rest not as acts of self-indulgence, but so that we are not overwhelmed, and can go on listening, witnessing, and doing the good that we can, however small that contribution might feel. We need to slow down not only to hear the stories around us but also so that we can live from what my yoga nidra teacher calls ‘an embodied experience of hope’ — never giving in to cynicism and bitterness but able to forge stories of connection from the listening we do.
Where there is deep listening within
And this listening is not only an external focus. Writers, in fact all human beings, need to spend time in our rich interior lives too. Listen to what you can hear going on in your head and heart. Listen to what is going on deep within. Listen intently, with real attention.
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince
We need to make time for this. The creative life calls us to dive deeply —
- into our interior worlds
- and deeper still into the unconscious
- into the bodies we inhabit so that we never forget our creatureliness and connection to all life
- into questions of meaning that might be insoluble but demand asking
The call of creativity is exhilarating and profound. It speaks not to the busy, bustling ego consumed by the dictates of ‘content’ and ‘productivity’, but to what Mary Oliver, writing in Upstream, calls a third self, neither child nor ‘servant of the hours’.
This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.
We need to be listening to this self with radical kindness and real attention because if we can’t listen within then we are unlikely to have the resources to listen and witness to others and our environments.
Where there is listening without
And when we have found the space, support and resilience from which to listen, and have taken the time to listen within, then we will have the courage and empathy to hear the stories around us. The writer and musician, Pauline Oliveros, advocates a practice of deep listening that allows us to radically expand what we notice and so connect to the world more deeply.
It’s something that Walt Whitman speaks of in his inimitable way in ‘Song of Myself’:
Now I will do nothing but listen, To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.
I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clack of sticks cooking my meals,
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice, I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
And Mary Olive puts it differently but just as powerfully in ‘The Summer Day’:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
We do know how to pay attention, how to listen. We also know it takes time and demands our whole selves. Yet when we do so, our writing takes on depth and authenticity. We connect.
Where listening bridges without and within
When we listen both to heart and world, within and without, we find ourselves paying attention to both joy and loss. Mary Oliver encompasses this with lyrical precision in her poem ‘ Wild Geese’ in which she reaches out to the listener to share despair, but also to find the reassurance of our ‘place in the family of things’.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Attention and lisening give us a bridge from the heart and inner resources to the world in all its need and glory. In The Wild Edge of Sorrow, Francis Weller puts it like this:
Attention is necessary for embodiment, for fully stepping into the world in an open and vulnerable way. There is something sacred about sustained attention; it deepens connection between all present.
Attention and listening are elements that Weller uses in rituals with those in profound grief and over and over he sees how being given attention, being listened to has the power to transform lives. One participant of such a ritual wrote:
Nothing has changed about your loss … it is still there. But … You have been heard and held tenderly.You have been drained. And then you can open yourself up again. You can start to rebuild in that annihilated place.
We all need to be heard and we all need to hear. Listen:
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Where there is listening dissolving without and within
This quality of attention, simply yet profoundly listening, is, says the ecologist David George Haskell, an ‘ethic of belonging’. It is an ethic that extends what Iris Murdoch wrote about as the coming together of a transcendent sense of beauty with an embodied experience of paying deep attention so that we lose consciousness of the watching ego and feel at one with what we are paying attention to.
Murdoch calls this ‘unselfing’ and Haskell talks about how we
‘unself’ into birds, trees, parasitic worms and, sooner or later, soil; beyond species and individuals, we open to the community from which we are made. […] Someone who has listened to a prairie, a city or a forest for decades can tell when the place loses its coherence, its rhythms. … Unselfing through repeated lived experience is necessary because many biological truths reside only in relationships beyond the self.
Practicing ‘unselfing’ is not an exercise in annihilating the self, nor lack of self-compassion, but simply taking any opportunity to live in deep connection by paying absolute attention to a bird, listening so profoundly to the wind in the trees that we move beyond our normal self-referential consciousness to, in the words of Iris Murdoch, ‘pierce the veil of consciousness and join the world…’
This dissolving into otherness is something that the poet and essayist Rebecca Tamás writes about in Strangers: essays on the human and nonhuman. Discussing Clarice Lispector’s novel, The Passion According to G.H. Tamás proposes that we have to meet the nonhuman with hospitality and that we do so by giving attention. After describing how Lispector’s character G.H. spends hours contemplating a single, injured cockroach, to a point where G.H. feels herself dissolve into and with the roach, Tamás comments:
In this strange moment of nonhuman recognition … G.H. finds the radical reality of intimate difference. She realises that part of her disgust at cockroaches … was the recognition of their mute life force which is mirrored in her own. G.H.’s hospitality to the reality of the cockroach–which she sits with and watches and makes space for–shocks and transforms her with the power of a revealed god.
And she goes on to call this ‘terrified hospitality to the nonhuman’ a truly ‘ecological thought’.
When we drop into a level of consciousness that ‘unselfs’, that recognises our continutity with all life, even when that life is not an awe-inspiring night sky or a cute basket of kittens, then the barriers between within and without dissolve for long enough for us to have radical compassion for and be kith with whatever lives. And the stories we write and stories we live are inevitably changed by this.
Where listening is all
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity, Simone Weil believed. And she defined absolute attention as prayer. For some of us prayer flies outwards, for some it’s listening within, for some of us it is not supplication, whether to another or internally, but affirmation of being at home with life itself. Attention is the attitude of deep listening and it is in this listening that we find the inspiration to write and create.
As writers in this moment of history, we need to listen more than we have ever listened. Listen to what others are saying. Listen to the natural world, to the wind and rain, to the insects and the animals we share spaces with. Listen to our hearts and souls and bodies. Listen to those inner voices that undermine us or spring from shadow places of repression and hurt and let them know they are heard, but they can stop now. Listen to the inner voices that nurture us, our truest intuitions and wisdom. Listen to the silence. Keep listening. Be with the silence. Be with the voices of the heart and the voices that connect us to all life. In these spaces of attention and radical interdependence, new stories are gestating and as we look outwards to all of life we are simultaneously deeply centred, fully at home. Listen.