Stopping to Listen

Morning sun

Amid the difficulties and trials of the pandemic this past year, at least one good thing has emerged: the time to stop and listen. In our pre-pandemic busyness, it was easy to dash ahead with recreation, work, and duties and never pause to notice the little things that make up our days. Several years ago, a reporter experimented with our preoccupation with rushing through our day when he set Joshua Bell up as a violinist in a busy subway station. Hardly anyone stopped to listen! The beauty of his playing was lost amid the urgent.

But these days, most of us do have the margin in our lives to pause, and as we do, we notice the world around us and listen to the background noise of our lives. This noticing and listening require us to still our hearts, to pay attention, and to turn off the incessant background hum of sound, but the rewards are well worth it.

Here are some of the things I am noticing and listening to right now:

  • the change in light as the sun rises earlier and earlier each day
  • bird song as it greets each morning with joy
  • weeds starting to grow again even though my plants are still mostly dormant
  • wind blowing through the trees
  • connections between ideas that pop up in books and conversation throughout the day
  • the dialog between my soul and God in the early morning hours
  • the way my cat focuses all of his attention every morning on the spot where the birds hang out
  • the sound of silence, heavy and soft, in which I can almost hear my heart beating
  • rays of light that fall across my bed each morning as I make it up for the day
  • how my heart lies quiet as I stop and stare and wonder, instead of rushing on
  • the soundtrack in my neighborhood—dogs barking, birds singing, leaves rustling—as I walk outside after lunch
  • feeling the sunshine warm on my skin when I go outside
  • seeing the first blades of green thrusting up where my tiger lilies grow
  • hearing words that my husband does not say in between the ones he verbalizes

Stop…listen…notice…reflect. These are gifts from the pandemic that came in the midst of the hardship, and I am thankful that I have cut out enough of the busyness to experience them.

What are you noticing and listening to today?

Writing in Difficult Times

A journal with paper that doesn’t allow the ink to bleed through and a roller ball pen are my tools of choice when writing by hand.

Like most of you reading this, I have been home a good deal over the last several months, in order to help keep my loved ones and other people in my circles healthy and safe. You would think that with all of this extra time at home (no commute!), I would have been writing up a storm. Alas, it seems that the same conditions that are keeping me at home also seem to be stopping up my creativity.

However, I have been writing and hanging out with writers long enough to know that creativity is not something that always strikes like lightning. Instead, thoughts and ideas come when you cultivate the right conditions for them. What are these conditions? Here are a few that I found help me create a conducive atmosphere for writing:

Noticing
A good writer notices things—the color of the sky, the sound of a dog barking in the street, the conversation in a restaurant, the way a girl skips home, the feel of a fuzzy kiwi in your hand, etc. Writers also notice the way the world works with all of its contradictions, surprises, ruts, pleasure, and pain. They then take these noticings and turn them into ideas for stories, essays, poems, and more.

Recording ideas
No matter how much noticing you do and how many ideas rise to the surface, unless you record them somehow, they could slip through your fingers and be lost. Find a good way to record your ideas and the things you notice. I use several methods to retain ideas. I have a notebook with a pen clipped to it. It’s small enough to keep with me most of the time so I can always jot down a thought as it occurs. I also use the notes app on my smart phone for the times when I don’t have my notebook handy. In a pinch (usually when I’m driving, which seems to be a great time for writing blog posts in my head), I have resorted to talking into my phone and recording my thoughts or the ideas taking shape. Then I can work with them when I get home.

Routines
A good writer develops routines. Writing only happens when you sit down in the chair on a regular basis and put something on paper. Find the time and place that works for you and make it part of your everyday life. The following quote says it all:

Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.

Ralph Keyes

Transition Rituals
Oftentimes, writing requires changing gears from your daily tasks to reaching down into your mind and soul to transform your ideas and thoughts and noticings into something new. This can be a hard transition, and oftentimes a little ritual of some sort can help. Lighting a candle, brewing a cup of something hot, putting on certain music, or picking up a favorite pen can all be signals to your brain that writing time has begun.

Planning
While some writers don’t need plans to write, others find that planning is the key to bridging the gap between ideas and words on a page. I fall into that camp. If I sit down to write without any plan at all, I sometimes will merely stare at a blank page or produce only garbage. Planning seems to be an essential part of writing for me. This is not true for every writer, but if you are having difficulty getting words on paper, try brainstorming several ideas and then sit down and work on an idea a day. Just having something in mind going into your writing session can be the difference between a blank page and a rough draft.

Tools
Choose your tools wisely. If you prefer paper and pen, choose smooth paper that feels good and a pen that doesn’t make your hand hurt or smear on the paper. If you choose digital, feel comfortable with your keyboard and make sure your computer or tablet or phone has the space to contain what you want to write. If you’re writing outdoors or off the grid, make sure your device is fully charged. Having enough light helps as does having a comfortable chair and sturdy desk or table.

Focus
Finally, good focus makes a difference. We live in an age of increasing distraction, but successful writing requires the ability to focus for substantial amounts of time, using deep thought and hard work. A book that I have found helpful in re-teaching myself how to focus well is Cal Newport’s Deep Work. He doesn’t have any easy answers. Work is still work, but Newport does give you the tools and practical frameworks for learning to focus for longer and longer periods of time, which can make or break your writing routines.

I hope these ideas are helpful with inspiring you to create words and articles and books and poems. Do you have any tips for creativity? Please share them in the comments.