Talk on Listening: “I listen, drinking in”
by Maureen Buchanan Jones
Delivered October 3, 2021 at the AWA Professional Development and Writing Retreat
You came to this conference to stretch your understanding of the AWA Method and to develop your abilities in supporting those who write with you. You also came to build on your own craft as writers.
This final session at this conference is titled: What’s Next in AWA?
Before stepping forward into what’s new, it’s necessary to make sure our foundation is secure. For AWA that foundation is The Method, both its language and how we apply it. When we rely on something constantly it can be easy to take it for granted, to assume that we are still following the Essential Practices. But the stones of a foundation can wear and slip gradually. I want to be clear that foundation is steady and firm before moving ahead.
Here are the Five Essential Practices:
- We are all equal as writers and treat all the writing and each other with respect. No writer has more genius than another, including the workshop leader. The workshop leader reads at least once in each workshop session for equal risk taking and trust.
- We hold all the writing in strict confidence. We don’t share it outside the workshop with each other or anyone else.
- We do not assume that any writing is about the writer. In response to writing, we do not use ‘you,’ ‘the writer,’ or ‘the author.’ Those all mean the same thing: the person sitting in the workshop who has just read. Instead we use ‘the narrator,’ ‘the speaker,’ or ‘the character.’
- We respond to just written work by noticing what is strong, what effect it created, what stands out. We don’t offer to ‘fix’ anything or make suggestions for what should happen to the writing.
- In our responses we are always talking about craft in writing and take craft seriously without crushing the creative genius.
While leading scores of workshops and retreats and teaching The Method through more than fifty training sessions, I came to realize that embedded in these five practices is a particular and unique way of listening. This quality of listening should be noticed, examined and emphasized.
Before I do that, I want to tell you that last year, in 2020, I thought the birds around my house sounded louder and their songs were longer. I didn’t really know what I was hearing, but I knew their voices sounded different. I thought maybe it was because I had time to notice their songs in a way I hadn’t before. I did some research. What I learned was that I was wrong. And I was right. Around the globe, as human noise diminished, birds didn’t have to shout over our traffic, yard machines, and crowd noise. They could communicate with each other more quietly. Sparrow songs were 27 percent softer. The songs also had more frequency changes, making their communication more effective. Their bandwidth traveled twice as far as it had before. This increase in bandwidth and the changes in the songs themselves improved mating possibilities and sharing information about predators and resources. And because the birds were singing more effectively, I along with other humans could hear the birds four times better and recognize the wider variations in their songs. As Steven Lovatt, in his book Birdsong in a Time of Silence, says, “Finally, the Earth could hear itself think, and the voice of its thought was birdsong.”
In an AWA workshop, we ask ourselves and each other to quiet our inner traffic noise, our busy scattered attention. We calm and still our inner satellite dish, focus it on one voice, and allow ourselves to be receptive to that voice. We witness the writing.
One of the primary needs of all human beings is to know they have been heard. All of us who experience the AWA Method, whether after we have shared our own writing or are responding to someone else’s, know the profound feeling of comfort, satisfaction, connection and sometimes healing that comes with knowing that what we have expressed has been fully received. Listening is as fundamental to the success of the method as not assuming that the writing is about the writer.
The way we listen in an AWA workshop is unusual. When we listen to others at work or when talking with neighbors, friends or family, we often aren’t fully listening. Instead we are hearing, which, on its most clinical level, is accidental, involuntary, passive and involves a basic connection between our ears and our brains. In a conversation, we might only be hearing the other person because we are distracted or taking in information for the purpose of providing an answer.
The act of listening, however, is focused, voluntary, intentional, and involves the mind and the body. It involves concentration and an effort to understand meaning. We listen to learn and comprehend.
But in an AWA workshop, our listening goes even further and deeper. We are required to practice a different quality of listening. When we listen to someone’s writing, we need to adjust our inner alignment to accept what is being given and accept it at its own value.
We need to adopt the “Willing suspension of disbelief,” a phrase created by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817. What he meant by his phrase is the act of letting go of our internal noise and critics. When we enter a theater or turn on the television, we suspend our own lives and live within the created universe of the story on stage. That is the beginning of how we listen in an AWA workshop.
We listen openly, without assumptions, expectations or judgment. We also listen by leaving ourselves behind as we enter the created world of what we are listening to. We don’t attach our experiences to this new experience of the writing. We accept it as it is offered.
We listen for the effect it has on us. We listen for what engages us, what surprises us, what becomes vivid for us. We listen for how the writing is created.
In addition, as workshop leaders, we are also listening acutely to how The Method is being used and upheld by the members of the working in the responses they give to that writing. It is our responsibility to follow the responses to a writer for the qualities of listening with respect and without assumptions.
The birdsong phenomenon and Lovatt’s quote are very much about the Sixth Practice that the AWA Board of Directors has voted to add to the AWA Method: The Quality of Listening.
Here is the language the AWA Board agreed on for this Sixth Practice:
When Listening in an AWA workshop we enter the universe that the writer has created and leave our assumptions behind. We are asked to leave behind our own expectations and experiences. In an AWA workshop we listen for and notice what works. We listen for and notice the choices a writer has made that help to create success in the writing. We listen without preconceived ideas about what the story should be about, how the poem should sound, or what we might do differently.
We are not asked to listen so that we can help or fix the writing or the writer. We are not asked to listen so that we can add our own story. We are asked to listen to how the story or the poem is told and how it makes us feel.
From the writer’s point of view, their experience should be exactly that described in this poem by John Fox, founder of the Institute for Poetic Medicine.
When Someone Deeply Listens to YouJohn Fox
When someone deeply listens to you it is like holding out a dented cup you’ve had since childhood and watching it fill with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved.
When someone deeply listens to you,
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind’s eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!
When someone deeply listens to you,
your bare feet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.
I’ll leave you with these the final words that belong to the one who listened to us first. These are lines from the poem “Three Sonnets” by Pat Schneider:
Now poems fall from your lips like rain,
and I listen, drinking in.