The sound of a story

Janice Pariat | Updated on July 05, 2019 Published on July 05, 2019

Lend an ear: Listening helps a writer because, unlike reading, it forces you to move beyond text   -  ISTOCK.COM

To be a good writer, you need to be a good reader and a better listener

A few weeks ago, I was in a hamlet called Haydon in Somerset, so small it wasn’t on Google Maps. We were gathered in a chapel for a book event. The launch of Paul Kingsnorth’s Savage Gods, a memoir-esque exploration of the relationship between writing, language, and place. After moving with his wife and two children to a small holding in the west of Ireland a few years ago, Kingsnorth expected to find contentment. To root himself, grow food, learn new things, be freer, live closer to nature. This Walden-esque shift proved less than fulfilling though, causing the writer to feel that the tools he relied on — words, language — had disappointed, failed. What was he going to do now, asked the interlocutor? In response, Kingsnorth had something interesting to say. That he was going to try to be a better listener. That there was a certain quietude he wished to inhabit which he hoped would renew him and heal this sense of disjuncture. The sending out of words into the world — through speaking, through writing — is, in some ways, an act of depletion. In giving them life and form, we are also imbuing them with our energy. “For 25 years, I’ve been writing about virtually everything that’s happened in my life,” he said. “Now is the time for silence.”

So for him, becoming a better listener entailed a sabbatical from writing.

To experience without the need to constantly interpret, to order and make meaning by transforming into text. Attending the event felt serendipitous — because lately I’ve been upgrading an old adage for myself in a way that uncannily connected to this conversation. This was that to be a good writer you need to be a good reader. Which is true. I don’t disagree. But I would expand it. That to be a good writer, you need to be a good reader and a good, perhaps even a better listener.

I say something similar in one of the earliest interviews I did, for the magazine Helter Skelter in September 2012, around the time my first book, Boats on Land, was published. That “a storyteller must also be a careful listener”. This, with reference to the strong oral traditions of the communities I grew up in, within Shillong and Assam. There are tricks to telling a story out loud — a certain element of theatricality, playfulness, improvisation — that can feed into writing. But how does listening help a writer in general?

At the most fundamental level, of course, it helps you gather stories and capture dialogue — how people speak, their turns of phrases, their distinctive voice. Listening well also makes us better observers of auditory details with respect to place and setting. But I’d like to push beyond levels of craft and technique. Listening helps a writer because, unlike reading, it forces you to move beyond text and into a space of — is there such a word? — human-ness.

This summer, I’ve been travelling around Europe since mid-May, for book events and research for my next novel, and what better time to resolve to be a better listener than when journeying to new places alone. I listened to cab drivers and my Airbnb hosts, to people who were homeless, who walked up to me asking if I had a bit of spare change. I listened to other writers, to readers. I learned about Taddeus, who drove me from Euston Station to Kew Gardens — how his parents in Namibia wanted him to be a lawyer, how he eventually dropped out of law school, and was still figuring out what it was he really wished to do. Betty, who was meant to host me in Berlin, got annoyed and flustered when I landed up at her apartment half an hour earlier — “I didn’t get your message,” she barked, “and I’m not ready.” I walked in, apologising, then asked, kindly, if she was all right. She teared up. “I just learned I have cancer.”

I made alternative arrangements to stay the night with a friend, but Betty and I ended up talking all afternoon — she was a filmmaker, I learned, and a keen gardener, who’d transformed the community space behind her flat, used as a dumping ground, into a garden. To listen is to move beyond people’s staccato “profiles” — online or otherwise.

A video by the education company The School of Life, called “How to be a Good Listener”, links listening with self-realisation. While we generally tend to believe that self-clarification is only possible if we ourselves actually do the talking, something far more redemptive is, in truth, the case. We can sometimes end up understanding ourselves by listening to other people. The proof, they say, lies in literature. Novels, for example, are stories of other people that we don’t mind hearing because they are also, at their best, stories that teach us about ourselves. Careful listening drives self-realisation, through which we become better listeners, and so the cycle continues. In turn, we bring this into our writing. To listen is to extend empathy, to make space in your life, and in your heart, for other people’s stories — and your writing, like you, is enriched, enlarged.

Janice Pariat   -  BUSINESS LINE


Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine-Chambered Heart; tweet to her @janicepariat

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Published on July 05, 2019
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