listening

Listening Past a Writer’s Block

At the end of the summer, an old friend asked about the latest writing venture I was working on. The question was nothing out of the ordinary from this man who, for years, has been one to wave a fan at whatever burning embers he saw in my creative hearth before I ever trusted the heat glowing there. I had no answer. I wasn’t writing and I hadn’t for at least a month.

After a pretty steady stream of short stories, various essays, and some novel development, I was in a place that many call Writer’s Block. I’ve driven down that particular block a few times, seen the various shanties and campsites of other lost, muse-abandoned creatives waiting for their purgatorial moment to pass. What I was experiencing looked nothing like this. But in my determination to figure out why I was not inclined to write, I considered that I might be in a different part of the same neighborhood as Writer’s Block. I started to question if I was really a Writer at all.

Photo by Maggie Stein.

Summer turned to autumn. Leaves turned yellow, orange, red just before the first big snowfall. I headed up to the mountains to help a friend split wood for the oncoming winter and expand his deck. It’s a yearly tradition that gets me out of the city, off the technology, and into simple things. It’s a day of pure, high-altitude, manual labor that requires more endurance than thought. Few words are spoken.

We worked from sunrise to sunset, fingers slowly losing feeling as the light disappeared and the cold filled the air.  The following morning, I had nothing to do but keep my coffee warm and listen to that silence that comes when there is no perpetual humming of cars blazing down concrete streets, no semis jake-braking their diesel engines like the gurgling sigh of a dragon, no sirens of emergency or pursuit. The only noise that time of year in those mountains is wind blowing through pine trees, snowing the Aspen leaves in golden blizzards.

As I listened to that silence I still wondered with an almost grievous angst why my writing seemed to be so dead in the water. I was reading Frederick Buechner’s Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation. It’s a reminiscence of Buechner’s early days, when he was trying to determine if he was a writer or a minister, or if there was such a place for one who is both:

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life is grace.”

Somewhere in the gazing out a massive window on the Collegiate Peaks covered in snow, in letting these words tumble around inside, I “heard” this: “You are a Writer and always will be. You just stepped back to listen for a time before writing again what you hear.”

The anxious questions ceased.

I am like so many: if I spot an interruption on what I believe to be the road to Somewhere, then surely something must be wrong. I will try to force what can’t be forced. In my gazing down the road I expect to see the next key moment, forgetting that they are all key moments.

In all the angst and doubt, all the trying-to-figure-out-where-things-went-awry, it never occurred to me that listening was an option. Listening to hear anew how a story is told, how words play together. Listening to the sound of voice–be it an elderly foreign accent, a little child’s self-musings, a regional dialect with its pauses and short stops. Listening, even, to the noise of everyday life, for that is where texture and characters are shaped. Sometimes there is a legitimate case of Writer’s Block, but what if to simply listen–and not force a thing–is all that is required?

There are plenty of inspirational books and essays out there about the creative process–the kind that make you think you could be the next Wordsworth or Rembrandt. There are even books on the neurological mechanisms of Writer’s Block. There are few that say, “Don’t beat yourself up. Just put the brush, the pen, the camera down…. and listen.” This listening is an art form in itself. How else will the good stories, the kind that speak to the True, ever be heard and, thus, written?

It wasn’t long after that weekend that I ran into the same old friend who asked me again about the latest and greatest words on a page. Instead of conjuring up some frantic cover for anxious unanswered questions, I simply said, “I’m still not writing much if at all. I guess I am listening for a while. Somewhere out of that listening I will write again.”