Writing as Deep Listening

DeskW:DaffodilsJim was a thoughtful, retired pastor who came to me for writing support. Because of prolonged wheelchair use, a wound had appeared at his sacrum that proved difficult to heal and challenging to his faith. Jim wrote personal essays about the struggle while enduring multiple surgeries and long periods of immobility.

Then his project stalled. He had expected the wound to close and provide neat closure to his essays. When it didn’t, he couldn’t finish his essays.

I told Jim (rather crassly) that a physical healing would be a clichéd ending to his story. Besides, his essays weren’t about the wound so much as the questions the wound posed to his well-being. The wound didn’t need resolution for his writing to be complete, but his questions did. Or they at least needed discussion and movement. Maybe living with lack of closure was the resolution to his essays.

When he revisited the topic, Jim found that his wound forced him to be “open” in ways that strengthened his listening skills. It made him dependent on others’ care, keeping him humble. He railed against the limitations imposed by the wound, he sought medical solutions, and yet he also understood himself to be a wounded healer, working from a place of vulnerability. Jim wrote his way into acceptance—and, in the process, learned to love revision. His completed essays awed me, not because the writing was fabulous (it was clear and straightforward prose) but because it was true.

Writers have the potential to discover wisdom beyond what we currently embody. “Great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors,” Milan Kundera wrote. Encountering this intelligence in our work stretches us, opens us.

Every story has a hidden life—a soul, if you will. How writers tend this soul significantly affects our work and our well-being. This tending is really active listening. It’s both willful, sprung from the self, and responsive, heeding that life-force beyond the story and its readership. “To be a writer,” Sarah Porter says, “means, perhaps, exactly this: surrendering the defined, expressible self to the wider possibilities of the page.” This is the same surrender the Christian mystics and Zen Buddhists describe—a releasing of the limited self in service of…nothing, everything. Mystery. The Other. “There comes a time in the composition of a work of fiction,” Alice McDermott writes, “when the writer must put aside all plans and intentions and preconceived notions of the work at hand and simply proceed, blindly, if you will, with the writing itself.” We know the most effective craft techniques and the rules of grammar; we have refined our skills; we can recognize quality, and we disregard all that to set our hearts on what really matters. This letting go is “the most difficult aspect of craft for a young writer to learn” and is the writer’s form of faith. “We must teach ourselves to walk on air against our better judgment,” according to Seamus Heaney.

In revision, we probe the many ways in which our stories are not our selves. They have their own integrity, their own identity. We can have broken, conflicted lives and still write honest, complete, unified memoir. We can create functioning fictional families while our own falls apart. Writing is redemptive. It grants us an experience of wholeness in an otherwise fractured world. “Poetry cannot say the unsayable. It builds something that holds the unsayable,” poet Marie Howe said. Our interaction with the container is real, with tangible results in our prose and psyches. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


Please join me at the Christine Center this summer to explore writing as a deep form of listening. We’ll have creative solitude, writing community, and the opportunity for one-on-one mentorship. June 19-23, 2016.


Fourth Fridays; 1:30-3:30 p.m.
Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions
Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.
April 22: Describing the Indescribable
May 27: Perspective and Insight

June 19-23, 2016
The Inner Life of Stories: Writing as Deep Listening
The Christine Center

September 12-16, 2016
Alone Together writing retreat
Madeline Island School of the Arts

2 thoughts on “Writing as Deep Listening”

  1. Elizabeth, I love your thoughtful posts and none more than this one (well, I’m not sure about that, not having read them all) because you somehow manage to put into words what I struggle to find the words to say. Yet hearing you, I comprehend, and feel a little more ease as I write and struggle and rewrite and revise and let rest whatever writing I am sweating over at the time.

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