A Writer’s Listening Skills

A Writer’s Listening Skills

Ruth E. Walker

My grandmother wore hearing aids. Bulky beige plastic half-moon shapes sat behind her ears.  They were attached to wires that held a small custom-moulded earpiece to fit into each ear canal.

The aids helped with her hearing but at times the high-pitched whining feedback loop was terrible, and she constantly had to adjust the volume. As a child, I thought it seemed a lot of work just to hear better. As I got older, I wondered what it would be like to have to wear hearing aids.

As fate (and genetics) would have it, I’m about to find out.

Hearing is believing

Why would a writer need to worry about perfect hearing? After all, my work exists between my fingers and the keyboard and/or the page. I don’t need to hear what I’ve written when I’m editing—I just need to know that I’ve used the best possible words in the best possible order.

I write fiction. I am especially drawn to characters—their motivations, fears, desires, idiosyncrasies. And I’m curious about them and love to get inside their heads—in short, how their actions and reactions reveal who they are.

Dialogue is a huge part of revealing character. Through conversations and interior monologue, I get to do a lot of exploring and developing interesting characters. And getting that on the page is what gives readers insights into what makes characters tick. What they say. What they don’t say. And how they say it.

I like to think that I’m pretty good at this part of the writing process. I have, as they say, an “ear” for dialogue, for the way people speak and I’ve learned how to use that in my fiction.

I’ve honed that skill by reading how other writers use dialogue. And I’ve further honed that skill by listening in on conversations over the years, by paying attention to how people speak, and especially if they have an agenda or perhaps something they want to keep private.

But lately, I’ve had some trouble with that listening-in part.

I beg your pardon

Over the past year or so, I’ve gone from occasionally asking people to repeat themselves to missing about 40% of what is being said around me. Phone conversations are more difficult. The television is set at an increasingly high volume. Indeed, our PVR has been a godsend so I can rewind and replay two, three even four times to get what I missed.

Parties are really tough even though I’ve become adept at the “large conversation gathering smile”—the go-to when I can’t hear most of what is being said but don’t want to appear “out of things.”

But does this actually affect my writing? I suspect it does in ways I’ve not yet considered. And most importantly, it’s severely limited my listening-in skills. My gift for dialogue doesn’t rest at my fingertips the same. It’s almost as if I have trouble hearing what my characters are saying.

A hearing loss is isolating and while I can still turn to writing to focus my energy, I am missing out on aspects of life.

Solitary craft still needs the world

What I write and how well I write is directly affected by me living a life outside my writer’s room. I’m inspired by the world around me. From birdsong in the early morning to the river’s gurgling at the cottage to the chatter of people in the grocery story, it all is part of what makes me the writer I am.

Sure, the act of writing is solitary. But for me, it is the result of all the senses in play in the world around me. There is nothing solitary about that.

I’m lucky. I have the means to purchase hearing aids that should help me return to the conversation of the world. And if I’m right, those hearing aids will give this writer a much needed boost of inspiration and life.

DID YOU KNOW

In 2015, The Guardian newspaper published an article Hearing Words, Writing Sounds: Examining the Author’s Brain. It’s a fascinating glimpse by Richard Lea into the idea of two kinds of “listening” — writing and reading.

For Pakistani and UK novelist Kamila Shamsie, “It’s about the sound of sentences.” and accordingly, she reads her chapters aloud when she finishes each one. But Booker Prize winner, A.S. Byatt, never reads her work aloud because there are “clearly distinct forms of written and spoken language”.

Professor Brenda Rapp of Johns Hopkins has focused a research study on speech and writing and two regions of the brain: one dedicated to producing and interpreting speech and one to the act of writing. They are, according to Rapp, separated at a very deep level. According the Lea’s article, Rapp’s study followed:

…patients with specific difficulties in speech and writing for 15 years [demonstrating] that writing and speaking are supported by different parts of the brain, not just in terms of the processes controlling the hand and mouth, but at deeper levels of the language system that contain knowledge of how words are put together.

Like Shamsie, I often read my work aloud. Does that mean I’m listening for something more than what I see on the page? I think so, even if I’m not too sure what it is that I’m hearing when I read my work.

How about you? Read The Guardian article and think if “listening” comes into your process of writing. Or, like A.S. Byatt, do you keep your focus strictly “on the page” in how the words work?

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2 thoughts on “A Writer’s Listening Skills

  1. Good Morning, Ruth,
    Happy New Year to you and Gwenyth.
    Thank you once again for instilling more insight into the writing life and its many facets. I always look forward to your thoughts on this craft of writing. Listening certainly is a gift. Aren’t we fortunate to find those special friends in our midst! Thank you, Ruth, for all the listening you’ve offered me over the years. I hope we can reconnect in the near future.

    1. Hi Laurel — lovely to hear from you and yes, indeed, the art of listening is a huge part of the craft. I’ll be writing about dialogue and character development in a future Top Drawer post and making more connections on that topic. Glad you want to reconnect. Gwynn and I are always happy to catch up with the people we’ve spent some time travelling that writerly road with. May your muse keep inspiring you to create more wonderful words.

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