Do you remember when you were a kid, and you would lay on the grass and look up at the sky and think? That's right. Just think.
Those were quiet times in a quiet world. There was no soundtrack to your life except the beating wings of a butterfly. No earbuds, no music, no streaming podcasts, no Siri, Echo, Alexa, or Cortana.
Occasionally the streak of a jet's white trail moved across the sky, but most of the time, it was simply those big white clouds. You'd find shapes in the clouds. Sometimes solve all your problems by simply staring at the sky. Silently.
So when exactly did the world get so noisy that you couldn't think, or hear, or listen?
It is a noisy world. It's a world where we are constantly elbowing each other for visibility. We spend our time jockeying to be seen and heard and felt and mostly simply acknowledged. Talking louder and louder, drowning each other out in our quest.
What if we stopped dialing up to be heard, and instead started listening again?
Listening is an art. One that is getting lost in the noise. Getting lost among the technology, the text messages, the emails. Do people even know how to listen anymore?
"...we’re obsessed – the official term is ‘TechnoStressed’ – we feel we must constantly check our various accounts because we can. Many people are also driven by the fear of missing out (FOMO). Because of how much happens in any given instant, we’re missing something when we’re unplugged, and we’re often compelled to log back on to see what’s happened since our last visit, or to confirm that nothing has."
- Aeon. And Their Eyes Glazed Over.
As writers, there are four primary areas of the art of listening, and they are essential to art, creativity, and communication. Most of them also apply to readers.
The Art of Listening to Others.
Pay attention to your listening skills. Are you guilty of not listening, but instead of looking ahead for an opportunity to give your opinion? A conversation has become something akin to a debate team's playoffs.
"...most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. You filter everything you hear through your life experiences, your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your autobiography and see how it measures up. And consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person means before he/she finishes communicating."
-Dr. Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People®
"Slowing down your responses and becoming a better listener aids you in becoming a more peaceful person. It takes pressure from you. If you think about it, you’ll notice that it takes an enormous amount of energy and is very stressful to be sitting at the edge of your seat trying to guess what the person in front of you (or on the telephone) is going to say so that you can fire back your response. But as you wait for the people you are communicating with to finish, as you simply listen more intently to what is being said, you’ll notice that the pressure you feel is off. You’ll immediately feel more relaxed, and so will the people you are talking to."
-Richard Carlson Ph.D., Don't Sweat the Small Stuff and It's All Small Stuff
You're a writer. You know it's not all in the words. Besides listening to what's being said, listen to the subtext of body language. For example.
Most people blink six to eight times a minute, but when stressed, they blink more often.
Facing the palms down or clenching the fists shows that the speaker is firm and may not be flexible. Open palms facing upward indicate openness.
Increased hand-to-face touching, especially nose rubbing and mouth covering may indicate lying.
And here's a startling revelation. What if during a conversation, instead of responding to everything, you opted to think about it? That's right, instead of jumping in with your two cents, consider really listening. Let the question or comment percolate in your mind. You can always respond later after careful consideration. Yes! Really! No response is perfectly acceptable.
It's like your phone, your email and even your doorbell. You are not required to respond when someone comes calling.
In the words of Vizzini from The Princess Bride, "INCONCEIVABLE!"
The Art of Listening to Self
Most writers are introverts. Guard and protect your introverted self. Revel in the fact that you are a good listener and don't despair because you aren't out there screaming with the masses. Don't allow the current social landscape to steal your gift. It's rare. It's beautiful. Don't become so overwhelmed with listening to others that you fail to listen to yourself.
"Introverts are thoughtful, imaginative, tend to work independently and think outside the box. Introverts are keen observers and sensitive listeners. Introverts prefer to be involved intimately with one person and are often drawn to life’s spiritual side. Introverts are not antisocial, shy, or aloof. But they are in the minority—outnumbered by extroverts three-to-one in a culture that values being an “Outie” over an “Innie.”"
-Marti Laney Psy. D., The Introvert Advantage: How Quiet People Can Thrive in An Extrovert World.
"Introverts tend to be excellent listeners. I'm certainly better at listening to chatter than producing it and I'm bumfuzzled by people I see in cars, on streets, at the supermarket, nattering away on their cell phones. What do they find to talk about so long and enthusiastically? I say what needs saying--usually a sentence or two--and then stop. Sometimes I lose interest in what I'm saying midway through a sentence and stop there (to my husband's irritation)."
-Sophia Dembling, The Perils of Listening Well-Psychology Today.
The Art of Listening to the Work
Writing is not about multi-tasking. It's about reducing the noise and protecting the work and listening to the work.
I often quote Jenny Crusie's Taking Out the Garbage: How to Protect Your Work and Get Your Life.
"Our energy and our emotion and our words are our stock in trade; we have to be careful not to steal that stock from others."-Jenny Crusie.
We need to listen to the work and listen to the characters or we simply cannot write the story. There is not enough room in our mind for the noise of the world around us and our story. Something has to give.
Listen to the work.
A University of Nebraska research study shows that tuning out background noise blocks fatigue in the area of the brain that helps you focus, doubling your ability to concentrate and focus on details.
You can't figure out your character's internal and external conflict if you can't hear them. Listen to the work. I highly recommend Mac's Soft Earplugs or noise-canceling headphones.
Finally, remember that we can only surrender to God's plan if we are still and listen to His plan. Listen to that still small voice. Does that mean once a day? Or does that surrender occur 24/7?
Listen. What do you hear? Let me know how you are finding ways to listen. What is the most difficult challenge for you in this very noisy world?