Learning to Listen

by George Polley

Listening to stories is something we learn as children. To a writer, listening is vital, because stories are everywhere, free for the taking when we take the time to listen for and to them.

It's amazing to me what I've learned over the years by listening, asking clarifying questions when appropriate, and allowing the person to tell his or her story as I sit and listen. Some years ago I wrote and published “Requiem for Blue”, a story about an ex-convict who had spent 30 years in prison for murdering his girlfriend's lover when he came home unexpectedly and found them in bed. The story was as he told it, sitting over coffee in the Chicago halfway house where he lived, with his name and other identifying details changed. When you learn to listen with both ears fully open, you will never run out of stories to tell.

Learning to write stories is also a matter of listening to other writers by reading them and, when the opportunity presents itself, listening to them in person. Minnesota novelist Frederick Manfred became a friend during the years we were neighbors in southwest Minnesota; he encouraged me, and introduced me to John Milton, editor of The South Dakota Review, who published one of my stories (Jonah's Birth) and two early articles, one about Miller and the other about a writer's sense of place. A few years later I met poets Stephen Dunn and Kelly Cherry, with whom I taught at Southwest Minnesota State University for a few short years. (I was an Instructor in sociology). They both gave me valuable suggestions, and encouraged me to continue writing. I met novelist Rudolfo Anaya (“Bless Me, Ultima”), too, and sat and listened to him talk about writing. Never turn down an opportunity to do that.

Author interviews are another great source of information about writing and the writing life. I've read them throughout my career, and I still read them, because they're a rich vein of ideas and information. Reading as widely as possible is another source for listening. When I read, I listen to enjoy the story, to learn more about my craft, and expand my consciousness beyond what is ordinary and familiar. I read detective fiction, historical novels (my mother had a shelf them by Louis Mühlbach, all set in 19th century Europe and written in a sedate 19th century prose), mainstream novels, stories for children, sci-fi (a college favorite), great literature, and so on. I read Harry Potter, Khaled Hosseini and Haruki Murakami, and anxiously await the English translation of his two volume new novel, 1Q84 (Japanese for 1984) so I can see what he's up to.

You can take classes in storytelling, and graduate from creative writing programs (I've never done either); but in my mind, the best writing program is reading, sitting down and writing, showing your work to others, and sending it out for publication. If you're not good at grammar and syntax, and I'm not, you'll pick it up from other writers along the way. If your grammar is awful, someone will point it out and give you pointers on what needs changing. If your stories are awful, good grammar won't save them. So pay attention to learning to tell a good story, one that people want to read and listen to.

My favorite mentors are great storytellers who use rich, evocative language to paint unforgettable pictures: Khaled Hosseini, Jorge Amado, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Mario Vargas Llosa, Mihail Sadoveanu, Kurt Vonnegut, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Haruki Murakami, Nikos Kazantzakis, J. K. Rowling and the others use language in a way that bewitches, captures the imagination and stay with you. When the characters and their stories become part of your own history and mythology, you have read (or written) a memorable story, even if you don't know where commas go and semicolons, how to conjugate verbs, diagram a sentence, or spell.

I don't write plot outlines for the simple reason that I get so hung up in the details of “doing it right” that it kills my writing. Instead, I focus on the characters, and allow them to guide me. I got the idea for my story about the old man and the monkey, from a dream about a Japanese snow monkey. Since I don't think about monkeys, why had he appeared? So I asked him, and the story, set in a tiny village north of Sapporo, Japan, unfolded from there. I get my story ideas from news incidents, snippets of conversation, sounds: a bird call, a big black raven sitting on a trashcan in a park or thieving food from someones grocery bag left on a bicycle, or a group of high school athletes (the “young wolves” in another story). Keep your “ears” open, and the characters with their stories, in my experience, will appear.

The key is learning to listen to hear.

George Polley was born in Santa Barbara, California and raised in Seattle, Washington. After high school, he completed his undergraduate work at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon (B.A., Sociology and Anthropology), and received a Master's Degree in Social Work at the University of Illinois, Champaign/Urbana campus. He has always had two parallel careers: mental health professional and writer and poet.
In 2008 he and his wife moved to Sapporo, Japan so that she could fulfill her dream of returning to the land of her birth.
His recent work includes: The Old Man and The Monkey and Grandfather Stories, published by Abbott ePublishing of Manchester, N.H. (March 2009) (www.abbottepub.com). “The Storm” (short story), The View From Here magazine (UK), June 2009 (online edition) and July 2009 (print edition); and two poems in Graffiti UK), May 2009

Photo Credit: Carbon NYC

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I've heard some of this before--and I've listened. But George Polley offers his personal take on listening and writing and learning from both masters and nonwriters (laypersons?)--I'm thinking of the ex-con--in such a vivid and positive way that it sounds like new advice and new information.
So: Another reason to listen carefully: even if people say much the same thing, they say it in their unique way.
And George Polley's way is especially clear and bright.