One of the most valuable (yet most difficult to practice) skills I have developed as a writer is to listen.
The act of listening is hard. It takes a lot of self-control. It means squelching the arguments and justifications that jump readily to mind when someone is dissecting or critiquing my work. This is because listening requires the most strenuous of all virtues: humility.
Humility says, “This thing I have created is very dear to me, but I will listen while you tell me it doesn’t work. I would rather know the truth than have my ego stroked.”
Humility says, “I don’t agree with you, but since I asked for your opinion, I will respectfully listen to it”.
Humility says, “Even though I’ve already devoted hours of time to this project and what you’re telling me means I must sacrifice even more, I will keep working because I want this thing to be excellent.”
The first place I learned to listen with humility was in critique groups. As writers it becomes hard to view our work with much objectivity, especially if it’s a project into which we’ve poured large portions of our time. That is why a good critique group is so necessary. Other writers will see the holes in my plot, the random phrase left over from another draft, the scene that’s inconsistent with my character’s personality. Even if I don’t agree with the critiquer’s ideas about a solution, I should consider the section they’re questioning. They’ve probably sensed what I couldn’t see–that something is off.
I now spend the majority of my time at critique group listening, not arguing or explaining. I know my book will be better for it. How much different would The Phantom Menace movie of the Star Wars franchise have been if George Lucas had surrounded himself with good critiquers instead of yes men? (I’ll bet you anything Jar Jar Binks wouldn’t have made it past the first draft stage).
The second type of listening I’ve had to develop usually comes into play after a critique group session. That’s where I listen to the deepest part of my writer’s heart. I consider the different suggestions and questions the critiquers have brought up. What do their comments boil down to? Is there a better way to communicate my ideas? I can’t take every piece of advice I get, otherwise I’ll end up with literary equivalent of a camel (i.e. a horse designed by a committee), but I do need to consider each and every comment.
I must hold two things in balance: I have to trust that many of the creative ideas I have are inspired by my Creator. But I must also balance this with the wisdom and suggestions of my peers. I need to remember my original purpose and inspiration for a piece, then refine my ideas with that message held centered in my mind.
The last and most important type listening I practice is when I allow God’s promptings to be the rudder that guides me. This is especially true when I write fiction. My stories come out of the deep themes that God is teaching me in my own life. Do I believe He wants me to spread a message of His kingdom through my words? Yes. Then when I get stuck, confused or discouraged, is there a chance He might be able to bring some clarity to the problem? Yes again.
This is still a very clunky process for me. I wish I would begin every time of writing by prayerfully centering myself in the truth that what I write matters; there is a message of love, hope or challenge that my Creator wants me to express, but I will need His help to cultivate and guide my words.
I do this occasionally. But more often than not, it’s only after I’ve come to a writing logjam. Then, when I am desperate, I think,“Why don’t I ask for help from the Great Author?”
Once I quiet my mind and listen, inspirations strikes and I uncover a solution that is vastly superior to anything I could have imagined on my own.
I have a sign, inspired by Psalm 46:10, hanging above my desk to challenge me in this practice of listening:
Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know
Listening is the ultimate tool in the writer’s tool box. By cultivating its practice, writers become more skilled in their craft and more gracious members of the human race.