Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Writer's Life: Listening

Whenever I hear of a friend or relative -- or a stranger, I'm not picky! -- in distress, I want to jump in and fix their lives. It's so much easier dealing with someone else's problems than my own. Besides, I am at times the world's authority on everything (things and times being variable). So, I do my best to keep my mouth shut.

I'm long since realized what a disservice I do to those I care about by butting in with unasked-for advice. It doesn't matter whether my perspective is correct and my facts accurate, or that what I suggest would work a whole lot better than what they're doing. What matters is that these are my facts, my solutions, and I have usurped the resourcefulness of the other person and denied them the dignity and the growth of finding their own way through a problem.

Not only that, and more importantly for the purposes of a writerly blog, I haven't listened. By filling my mind with problem-solving instead of attending to experience and emotion, I've cheated myself out of a priceless opportunity to glimpse life through someone else's eyes. I've also deprived them of perhaps the most precious gift a friend can offer, a compassionate and undemanding ear.

Some time ago, a writer friend who was going through a difficult divorce told me that her therapist had been amazed at her ability to understand and empathize with her spouse's point of view. She was puzzled by this response. As writers, we cultivate our creative imagination, the insight that gives us a window into characters very unlike ourselves. While I'm not suggesting that things told to us in confidence should be fodder for the creative grist mills, I do believe that careful listening, deep listening, can make us better writers as well as better friends.

Painting "Friends" by Jerry Weiss, 2003; licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. I cringe when I'm involved in or witnessing conversations where I can see the other person almost hopping out of their skin because they can't wait for their 'turn' to speak.
    As a child I learned very quickly that listening was a survival skill, as a young adult, it became a tool for finding my way in the world, and now? ... ahh, the stories I could tell, just from llistening ... not only to humans either!

  2. Listening, just listening, is such a gift.