September 06, 2018

The Whisperers, bronze by Rose-Aimée Bélanger, installed on Saint-Paul Street in Montreal (photo by Jeangagnon)

Hello dear tribe of readers, thinkers, and imaginers,

Outside my study, gathering above the trees, a skyline of deep purple clouds, not the first storm of the season, nor will it be the last. I’ve cranked shut my windows and fastened the latches, but I can feel the heavy stillness that accompanies this midday darkness. In a few seconds, thunder will boom closer and droplets will splatter the glass. Meanwhile, the silence has entered my bones.

“Language—and thus knowledge—begins with listening,” writes Sam Hamill, poet, translator, Co-founder of Copper Canyon Press. Hamill, who died in 2018, is a hero of mine. Born to an illiterate carnival fry cook, and taking up a life on the street as a young heroin addict, survivor of physical and sexual abuse, homelessness, gang rape, incarceration, Hamill professed that poetry as a form of discipline and a form of revolt saved his life.

“To listen is to know,” he writes in the 1997 preface to his book The Poet’s WorkKnowledge begins with listening. He tells us that in the Sumerian myth of Inanna, goddess of heaven, the word for “ear” is the word for “wisdom” and the word for “mind,” and encourages us to be listeners. It would seem that listening is a non-negotiable attribute of human development and behavior, but in our age of Twitter chatter, hyperactive attention spans, and disdain for contemplation and sustained reflection, I do wonder if our capacity for deep listening has shrunk.

Listening and hearing are different functions. Hearing is a perceptual ability, the ear perceiving sound; listening requires conscious intention and concentration. To value listening is an act of respect, but we are all capable of distraction and emotional deafness. Your girlfriend describes her difficult day at work. You hear her words, but are you listening? Listening initiates connection, understanding, and belonging; simply hearing sets the stage for disconnection, misunderstanding, and isolation.

What brings me to this subject is in part the deplorable state of our public discourse where so many are struggling to be seen and listened to (not just heard)—but also, as a fiction writer, I am engaged every day in the art of listening, to my characters and to my writerly intuition. This is not much talked about by writers: the amount of focused concentration and energy that precedes putting a single word on paper. This kind of listening—locking one’s bossy ego in a closet so it can’t interfere with less vocal parts, listening with one’s whole self—requires practice and discipline, trust and humility. Will the voices come? Will the characters speak? Will I hear them clearly? Will I understand? One can only hope and wait. I put an ear to the conch and strain to hear the ocean’s breath.

Recently, exhausted from working long hours, I had a face-off with the demon Doubt. Doubt knows our weak spots and likes to kick us behind the knees. For what? was the catchphrase hissed in my ear. For what have you given up four years or more of your life for writing this novel? For what have you sacrificed family time, friendships, travel, endured loneliness, anguish, back pain, sleepless nights?

Most writers wrestling with long-term projects are plagued by these questions, and how could it not be so? We spend years in the process of discovery in the land of the unknown creating our vision by listening to imaginary beings. Our success or failure circles back to something Sam Hamill implied: to listen is to see, to understand, a bridge of empathy. “Poetry (and I expand this to mean all art),” he wrote, “is an outward expression of inner vision made audibly perceptible.”

Are artists alone in finding this kind of listening essential? Not at all. In fact, as I’ve been writing about in several recent blog posts, imaginative empathy is a crucial part of exploring and understanding how the child-parent relationship changes over the years. See “Our Mothers, Ourselves: the Search for the Whole Story,” “Fathers: Heroes, Villains, and Our Need for Archetypes,” and “Daughters Discovering Mothers: The Yearning for Identity.”

I’m a listener and can’t help but be a listener. I’m one of those who will keep listening, not because I think my listening (or writing) will change the world, but because by listening I hope to gain knowledge and find the words to name what has gone unseen and unsaid. Here I align myself with Claude Debussy: “Music is the stuff between the notes.”

Let me close with a few newsy items: On November 2 and 3, I’ll be speaking at the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books on the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha campus. The theme this year is “American Stories,” so I expect a weekend filled with tales tall and small. If any of you are in the area, stop by. I’d love to see you.

Over the past year, I’ve also had the surprisingly thrilling experience of participating in book club discussions of The Conditions of Love, both in person in Wisconsin and virtually across the nation. What fun to revisit my characters with new readers! If any of you know of groups that may be interested in doing this with me, please send them my way. Not every author enjoys this, but this one really does!

One last note: Some people who have read my book have asked me what they can do to help support it. I’ve asked my friends in publishing about this and they all agree: the best thing anyone can do, if they have a few spare minutes, is to post a short review on Amazon, B&N or Goodreads. Believe it or not, those reviews make a big difference on whether a book gets discovered and bought. If you have a moment to spare, here are the links: Amazon B&N Goodreads.

Wishing you peace, joy, and the willingness to listen,