Women Voice & Writing e-book

from Women Voice & Writing: How to define, develop, & strengthen your writing voice

Excerpt from Chapter 4, “Listening and Writing with the Third Ear”

Listening is input for writers. It is how we gather our raw material. Not just listening with our physical ears, but listening to writers when we read, listening to media when we are bombarded by it, listening to colleagues and friends, listening to our own authentic voice, it especially means listening to our core.

The psychologist has to learn how one mind speaks to another beyond words and in silence. He ut. It means listening with all our intelligences, all our ways of knowing, with our “third ear.” And, to find our must learn to listen ‘with the third ear.’ [Reik, p. 144] (Theodor Reik’s Listening with the Third Ear (1948), page 144, who takes this phrase from Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Part VIII, p. 246.)

This is equally true for writers. Writing with voice speaks clearly to another mind “beyond words and in silence.”

Author and actor Anna Deveare Smith performs listening. She makes it visible. In her 1992: Twilight Los Angeles, she interviewed people within a few degrees of the Rodney King trial; Rodney’s aunt, a truck driver witness, lawyers, as well as leaders of affected communities. Then she took verbatim excerpts from these interviews, studied the voice and mannerisms of the speaker, and “performed” the interviews for us. Remember the picture in our science books from elementary school that showed the scientist’s conception of how a fly sees out of each of those ocular cells? I felt like an audial cell in the collective audience of Smith’s ears. I saw, heard, experienced a piece of how she listens. She shows how I/we don’t listen carefully enough to what we say.

A good piece of writing will likewise invite us into the author’s inner mind, listening to her voice in her writing, experiencing through her. When we are writing, we often become keenly aware of information, serendipities that relate to what we are writing about. Much like when you are shopping for a new home, you’ll go to a friend’s house and suddenly notice the layout of the kitchen, or the baseboards or cornices. Just so, our attention gets focused on what our mind is ‘hunting.’

We can also train ourselves to listen for details that will be helpful in future writing. Bag material as we go along in everyday life, noticing the fullness and richness of material.

I had the privilege of meeting young adult author Robert Cormier (I Am the Cheese, The Chocolate War). Robert was talking away, telling me how he writes, and he said

If it’s an action scene I’ll try to get that forward movement and that thrust. Once I have that locked in, then I go back and layer in the setting, just the action between two people sitting there talking. Like me talking with my hands a lot and you not. I might write that in.

Here, he gesticulated a lot, and then held his arms quietly to his body to show me what he was taking in. I became instantly aware that Robert was acutely listening, kinetically, even while he was engaged in speaking. He was taking in details, watching, recording. I was indeed keeping myself very still, to listen as completely as I could. He was gathering material. Robert was multiplexing tasks, “taping” even while outputting.

I have heard that for writers, there are no bad experiences, just more raw material. How we listen is partially shaped by our inherited voice, how our ear was trained. It is also partially shaped by our own factory modeling. Like cars, each of us is shipped out with special features right from the factory, our own unique packaging that sets us apart as individuals even within our families. One might be especially talented at empathy while another of us is musical, carrying a tune even before we could speak.