Lean Back and Listen

As children, we are constantly admonished to listen. To pay attention. Speaking as an adult, I think we are the ones in need of scolding; perhaps we ought to pay closer attention and listen to the children for a change.  Today’s chapter in The Right to Write is called “Let Yourself Listen.” What it deals with is whether writing is an act of taking or giving dictation – whether we are thinking up things to write about, or simply giving ourselves over to “whatever seems to want to come through us.”

When I’m “in the zone,” writing truly feels like taking dictation from the universe, or at least from all the little people in my head. If I insert myself into the process and try to direct the action, they dig in their heels and refuse to cooperate. They become sullen and silent and perverse. They attach little strings to their arms and legs and feet and heads and dance around like a parody of Pinocchio, mocking me.

That’s not a good place to be. I think maybe that’s the place some writers call “writer’s block.” It’s more terrifying, actually, than mere mental constipation. It’s a dark place where you realize that the harder you try to control your imagination, the faster it slips out of your grasp and goes to play somewhere else.

I once had that happen a week into National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I’d been writing from the perspective of my thirteen year old protagonist, a boy, and realize I needed to switch point of view so that I could do a little head-hopping; I needed to tell the story from other characters’ perspectives, too, and show their inner conflicts. I went through my Word document with Replace All, changing “I” to “he” and “me” to “him” – and when I was done, I felt him scowling at me. He was my first little Pinocchio puppet, sarcastically and woodenly allowing himself to be stage directed, but adding nothing – not one iota of personality or fun – to the scene. For the next week, he refused to say or do anything anyone would want to read – and worse, nothing that “moved the story forward,” as we say. The other characters weren’t too happy having to live with his sullen pouty face, either. I finally took him aside for a little chat, and – incredibly frustrated and unsure what to do, told him that if he didn’t cooperate I’d dress him up in his big sister’s clothes and send him off to middle school that way. I’m not sure that bullying our characters is a good idea, and I’m ashamed of myself for even thinking to try it, but it worked like a cattle prod – and we called a truce. That was the first time I realized that writing was either a mental illness or a gift, but that we aren’t and shouldn’t be in charge of orchestrating every little detail of it. We need to let go, push off into the current, and simply write.

We tell children not to be so bossy or their playmates won’t want to join in their games anymore. And yet what do we do, the minute we “grow up”? Being a writer and being a perfectionistic control freak go together like sardines and buttermilk.


I intentionally made that image hard to read, so you’d have to slow down and think about it. But change the word “reply” to “blog” or “write” – it doesn’t matter, the result is the same, and I think it’s akin to stage fright. It’s wrapped up in fear – fear that we’ll forget a thought, fear that we’ll say something stupid, fear that the other person’s going to finish up and leave without hearing us out – I don’t know. Fear we’ll never get a word in edgewise if we don’t listen for them to suck in a breath, when it comes to some people – but still, if you make a habit of it, you’ll miss your cue – and you’ll have nothing much to talk or write about. Just let yourself listen, as Julia Cameron says.

Henry Miller wrote, “Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls, and interesting people. Forget yourself.” Remove ego and the need to impress other people through your writing; simply listen to the world around you and be a conduit for the stories that unfold in your head.

Listen with Me

Today’s “initiation” is to pretend that you are sitting under a large tree with your back to the trunk. On the other side of the tree is a Storyteller. Tell the Storyteller five tales you’d like to hear. If, like me, you’re a writer, this is hard – for all the reasons discussed, above, it’s hard not to try to be on both sides of that tree trunk, myself. What stories would I like to hear – and how would I tell them? For the moment, I need to listen – and let someone else tell them.

Okay, Storyteller – tell me about all the tiny creatures living in this tree trunk. I want to hear how they go about their daily lives. Not anthropomorphized squirrels, but real squirrels, and maybe a fairy or three.

And then, when you’re done, tell me about the harried executive who simply snaps, one day, and decides to live in a tiny house off the grid. Or maybe in a Hobbit Hole.

Tell me about traveling the world, sleeping in old monasteries. Or castle ruins. Haunted ones, maybe. A new sort of “gothic romance,” a new sort of house for the girl to run from.

Tell me about a writer who goes on a writing retreat. Or is that too self-indulgent? I’m still irked that one of my college professors beat into me the notion that nobody wanted to hear stories about writers. If we’re all writers, then of course we do. And… damn him. Misery? Or not a retreat – how about a writer who wins one of those free houses in Detroit?

How about the story of a white child adopted by a minority family?

Oh, just pick one you think I’d like.

Go ahead and do this in the comments – I’ll be your Storyteller, though I don’t promise to write to all requests.


Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at http://amazon.com/author/hollyjahangiri. For more information on her children's books, please visit http://jahangiri.us/books.
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12 thoughts on “Lean Back and Listen”

  1. Holly as my personal storyteller? Oh, joy!

    1. Tell me about a little dog who tires of be labelled “Man’s best friend.”

    2. Tell me a story about a family of outcasts who win over a village – only to become embittered by the belated love.

    3. Tell me a story about a man who loves his car so much that he kills a stranger over a fender-bender.

    4. Tell me a story about a boy with no hands who becomes the leader of United Automobile Workers labor union.

    5. Tell me a story about a philosophical crack-head in a debate with a Republican Presidential candidate at a town hall.


    Mitchell Allen recently posted…Breaking Your VowelsMy Profile

  2. I want to hear about traveling the world, sleeping in old monasteries. I know you can speak from experience.

    1. Sort of – I’ve really only slept in a guesthouse NEXT to an old monastery… 😉 But I do have this fantasy of completely unplugging (well, maybe not COMPLETELY – I’d still like to use a laptop with Word and a connection to a power outlet) on a writing retreat, and places like monasteries, convents, The Tower of London, old castles (without all the amenities)… all of those look somehow inspirational to me. 🙂 If I had too much modern luxury, of course, I’d just luxuriate and waste the time. Too much hardship, and I’d just be looking for a way out. A small room and lots of solitude for a finite period of time – and maybe a large, lushly green setting to stroll around in when I need a break – I think that would work for me. And I’m still disappointed I didn’t win one of the Amtrak writers in residence tickets. 🙂

    2. I have to admit, though, that my room here did have a very inspirational view: http://www.booking.com/hotel/at/gasthof-maria-plain.html

      And Katie found this, while she was in Austria: http://attersee.salzkammergut.at/en/all-year/culinary-attersee/austria/poi/400142/gustav-mahler-composers-cottage.html

      So yes, you know exactly the sort of place I envision. 🙂 Did you know that you CAN stay in convents and monasteries around the world? (They are somewhat modern and comfy looking, actually.) http://www.women-on-the-road.com/stay-in-a-monastery.html
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Lean Back and ListenMy Profile

  3. Whew, I’m tired just seeing what you’re asking people to do.

    First, I know what you mean. Remember that detective story we talked about when I interviewed you? The thing is I had an outline and was following it alone fairly well… and then my mind said “hey, we need a bit more intrigue”. That ran it off the rails, and here I am, 11 years later and no idea of how to proceed; sigh…

    Second, story ideas eh? Well, I’m not as goofy as Mitch (yeah, I said it lol), but here’s what I’ve got:

    1) Tell a story about an unexpected animal that saves the life of a child

    2) Tell a story about a person who learns he/she can fly and how it turns out not to be as cool as they thought it would be (this is my superpower dream by the way)

    3) Tell a story about a person waking up one day only to find that everyone and everything has turned one specific color… except the protagonist

    4) Tell a story about an old tree that becomes conscious and starts talking to people

    5) Tell a story about something that turns a hateful person into a more loving one… yeah, it’s been done, but I’m betting your twist on it would be much different.

    That’s all I’ve got 😉
    Mitch Mitchell recently posted…7 Definite Rules Of Marketing Online And OfflineMy Profile

    1. I’m not asking anyone to do anything but play along and do the exercises with me, if they want to – these are all coming from the book, The Right to Write, by Julia Cameron – I’m just giving them my personal spin. 🙂

    2. “All you’ve got” here is pretty awesome.

      And I’m starting to see that not only is this exercise a good way to generate ideas, it’s a good way to receive them! So thank you. I’m intrigued with several of these, enough to want to write the stories… we shall see!

    1. GOOD!! Much more fun to do it “together.” I haven’t stopped this series, by the way – just took a pause. I really like the next chapter, but I’m going to propose a different exercise. Because that’s how I roll. (You can peek ahead if you want to see – but the reason I’m going to propose a different exercise is that it’s been so long that the thought of it makes me a little sad. I don’t think “sad” brings out my creative best.)
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Have You Looked at Yourself, Lately?My Profile

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