“The reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is so we might listen more and talk less.” – Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 7.1.23
When you think of a writer, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? A pen? Paper? Computer? A dark room with an oak desk? Glasses, perhaps? The stereotype that follows writers is as laughable as it is understood, as incorrect as it is spot-on. The writer, you see, is nothing without his or her pen and paper. Nothing without a space to construct and refine their work. But just as they are incapable of creating without tools, a good story is impossible to weave without the thread of inspiration. So, where does one find inspiration? Where is a good story born? From listening to the experiences of others.
The Talker in Me
I’ve always been what some would call a talker. Talking comes naturally to me, whether it be to fill a silent void, engage with new peers, or even boast. I’ve been known to interrupt and ignore, though not on purpose. It’s a sickness, really — a bad habit that must be broken, and I’m sure most other talkers would agree. So why do we do it?
In short, talking makes people feel good. Important. When you talk, a part of you is validated, at least for a short while. And why is that? Because someone is listening. And when talkers are validated, listeners are educated.
I want to reiterate the fact that I’ve never published a novel. Never published a story, even. I do recall having a poem published in my university’s creative magazine while completing my undergraduate degree, but I can’t even remember what it was called. For all intents and purposes, I remain no different from the hundreds of thousands of dreamers out there who wish to see their stories live on bookshelves. I remain silent, at least as far as writing goes. And while I wait for my chance to find an opening in a sea of closed doors, I have an opportunity before me that I never quite understood until I decided to pursue a master of fine arts in creative writing.
The Importance of Listening
Every story is the same. The arc of every story will, in almost every way, mirror that of the one that came before it and the one that will inevitably come after. What separates the good from the bad — and the successful from the forgotten — are the elements that make up an arc. So, if these elements are so important, ask yourself: how can one expect to find the inspiration for a unique, interesting set of elements by relying on his or her experiences alone?
William Shakespeare once said, “The earth has music for those who listen.” Mark Twain echoed his sentiment: “Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would have rather talked.” Two of the most esteemed writers ever agree on the importance of listening — the importance of tuning out your own noise to soak in someone else’s. And it’s difficult, mind you. People are inherently opinionated, hoping someone will hear and understand their views on every subject. This urge to express ourselves, unfortunately, gets us into more trouble than we realize. In the age of social media, “talking” is as easy as commenting on a controversial post – or, worse, generating one yourself.
Maybe the issue has something to do with pride. Maybe we talkers think our voice means more because we’ve had listeners entertain our thoughts before, but that’s the very thing about the past: it’s in the past. Where’s the pride in thinking you know it all? What’s the good in rebuffing inspiration by not allowing it to blossom? You never know where another person’s experiences might lead you or your work, and you never will if you fail to give them a chance to tell their side of a story.
A Quick Note
I understand that writers are different from the average person in that they have a unique gift and platform they can use to educate and inform. This is, by all means, essential. What’s equally important, however, is taking a step back and realizing that there is potential in knowledge, unmatched and often untapped. The best of our breed take time to interview, travel, explore, and observe without comment, gathering their thoughts so that when they do choose to use their voice — in a blog post, a social post, or a story — they’re educated. They’re supported. They’re, in almost every way, better off than they were before.
We all have voices that should be heard, need to be heard, especially us talkers. But these voices stem from our emotions far more often than hindsight would justify. What if instead of reacting, we just watched the drama unfold. What if, instead of talking with the intent of teaching, we listened with the intent of learning? What if, for once, we drew inspiration from that which is unfolding right before us?
I know I must become a better listener. A better learner. A better storyteller. I’m sure many other writers feel the same way. But knowing what needs to be done is merely the first step. To find success in writing among a swarm of other talkers, you need to practice listening, just as you would study grammar and the art of generating prose.
One final thought: reading is listening. Watching is listening. Touching is listening. Feeling is listening. We may have two ears, yes, but we also have two eyes. Two hands. Two feet. Twenty fingers and toes. A brain, a heart, a soul — and only one mouth. Use your gifts to your advantage.