Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Importance of Listening

In college, I took an African American literature class taught by a white woman from New Zealand. Her wisdom and insight had a life-changing impact on me.

One of her stories really stuck with me. She was at a party with other professors when a drunk African American teacher backed her into a corner and starting shouting at her. She made accusations against her about all the injustices she suffered from “you white people” as a kid.

My professor was understandably defensive. Not only had she done nothing to deserve this drunken tantrum, but she wasn't even an American!

But she decided to listen. Behind the hostility, it was an opportunity to learn. The woman told her about a field trip she went on as a kid when she was the only black child in her school. Her class made her go to the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street so they wouldn’t be seen with her. When they went to their destination, they made her wait until they were done before she could go inside. My professor was shocked by the things this woman shared and grew to sympathize with her.

Later when the woman was sober she apologized profusely and my professor assured her that it was okay; she understood. The two of them talked more about her experiences and became good friends.

Writers often think of their job as simply communicating their ideas to others. I like to think of a writer's job as being two-fold: we need to speak, but we also need to find things to say. Our own life experiences are so limited that if an author doesn't know how to listen to other ideas, issues, and life-styles, the author won't leave much of an impact.

An author I spoke to (whose name evades me) said listening to other people's stories and retelling them the exact same way you heard them is a greater art than writing your own or retelling it in your own words.

He also mentioned that when he hears about young men dying in war, it's not the deaths that are tragic. Death is natural. It's the lost stories we should cry for. As writers, we have the precious gift of being able to tell stories before they're gone.

I used to be more of a talker than a listener, but then I had an eye-opening moment when I realized I always said the same things. I always shared the same stories, the same jokes, the same opinions. I already know what's in my own head. Now I want to know what's in others'.

If you want to learn how to be a good writer, here's some advice: learn to be a good listener.


  1. LOVE this advice. I think it's human nature to want to talk more than we listen, but listening is so important to develop our friendships, our writing, and depth in our own lives. Everyone has a story to share, whether or not they write it out like we do.

  2. LOVE this! What excellent advice, not only for writers but for people in every field!

  3. I agree: great advice. I try and tell stories only when called upon to do so. The rest of the time I just listen.

  4. Great stuff to think about! I think as writers we enjoy listening, because we pick up on all those human nuances that translate perfectly onto our characters!

  5. Really thoughtful post, Teralyn! Even now, I am still learning when I ought to speak up and when to tone down my voice and just observe what's going on around me. My psychology professor constantly told us in class that we are, by nature, social creatures. But I think listening can also be a form of communication, don't you think? :)

    Hope you're having a great week!

    ~Wendy Lu

    The Red Angel Blog

  6. It is human nature to want to speak, bringing attention to our starved inner self. Hence we get TWITTER. But you are right. We learn so much more by listening.

    Hemingway urged writers to do just that and observe at the same time whenever we were out in the public. He even suggested that when we were in the midst of being yelled at to remain silent and listen to what exactly within the angry person was speaking ... the hurt child, the lonely adult, the misunderstood human.

    The New Zealand professor was following Hemingway's advice without even knowing it! LOL. Great post, Roland

  7. I'm an aspiring writer and this is so helpful! While I am more of a listener, I sometimes write how I'd feel after someone tells me of his own experience and forget to write about his. Will keep this in mind next time.

  8. Really enjoyed this post! Very well said!! :-)

  9. Listening is a big part of my job - what I struggled with was asking the right questions, but I've definitely started to get better at that, and it's a very rewarding skill to practise.

  10. great post!




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