Words on the Street, Revisited #10: Listen Up

Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.

Tube socks with thick scarlet stripes at the top. Cherry red polyester (not cotton!) shorts with white piping. Two long braids (or the bangs of my pixie cut depending on the grade level) I twirl with my pointer finger to ease the nerves. Would I be the last to get picked? Would I make a basket? Would I fall flat on my face, or ass, while attempting to climb the ropes? And that distinct, singular gym class smell: preteen sweat mixed with freshly inflated balls and dusty, mildewy rubber exercise mats.

“Listen up!” our Phys Ed teacher barks, waving his arms to pull us into a huddle.


Most of us probably have our own version of the illustration above.  Isn’t it particularly annoying to be instructed to “listen” or “listen up” or “listen here” when the vulnerability scale is tipped and not in our favor?

Speaking of annoying, how about all the times we hear people (myself included) use the word listen at the beginning of sentences?

“Listen, I know you are disappointed, but…”

“Listen, how about trying this approach…”

“Listen, everyone’s heart gets broken along the way, you’ll move on…

Damn. Are we that desperate to be heard?

Short answer. Yes.


“There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing,” journalist and author G. K. Chesterton offers. The examples above don’t illustrate a lot of actual listening going on but instead more of a longing on the part of the speaker. And how juicy stories of longing can be. Think: basically, every coming-of-age narrative ever.

Back to the writing, though. How can knowing and honoring the difference between listening and hearing help us in our pregame creative processes and then once we get to the blank page?

I have some thoughts.


The senses are some of the greatest tools we possess that can help us locate scenes, memories, ideas and words for our stories. In a previous Words on the Street column, “Stop and Smell the Flowers,” I discuss the power of smell and how it can shake up our memories and yield rich scene-making on the page. As well, attending to the other senses by allowing for time and space to explore—rub your fingers along the hot leather seat of your uncle’s old Buick, let the Jolly Rancher linger on your tongue—can bring it, too.

And music! This is where hearing comes in. Sure, we may listen, really listen to lyrics, which can be wonderful and dramatic and intense but hearing the sounds can also ignite wires that, when connected, may lead to flowing words. Maria Popova, in The Marginalian, shines a light on this and other ways hearing music influences writers in her piece, “Great Writers on the Power of Music.”  I’m moved, especially, by her inclusion of the Oliver Sacks quote about paradox:

“And there is, finally, a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.”

Most artists I know acknowledge the way paradox seasons their work in one way or another. As a writer I try to keep this front and center when I reimagine characters and moments, recognizing the importance of illustrating both the light and dark, the neat and messy. In her interview with writer Susan Cain, author of Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, Design Matters Podcast Debbie Millman invites Cain to share the story of how the memory of listening to what Cain calls “bittersweet music” as a twenty-two-year-old law student shapes her view of love and sorrow. From the Introduction:

“It’s hard to put into words what I experience when I hear this kind of music. It’s technically sad, but what I feel, really, is love: a great tidal outpouring of it.”

Give it a try. Turn up the radio, pop in (or on) those headphones and welcome the mess and the beautiful sounds music can offer. Then open the notebook and find your own notes.


Now it’s time to go a little deeper. Here’s something to nosh on: Is listening to hearing what tasting is to eating?

This is where city streets, diner booths, and late-night phone calls (among about a thousand other possible examples) take the stage.

Whether we are engaged in a conversation or eavesdropping on one, fully listening to what is being said is not only a valuable act but one that takes more energy than we may realize. That’s because a lot of the time, without even realizing it, we’re just hearing what we want or thinking about what we are going to say next.

Here are two activities that help me when I need words that flow, stories that engage, and characters that are real:

  1. I go out onto the streets and into the world (bring a little notebook or have the Notes app opening on my phone) with the clear goal of being nosy and listening closely to the conversations of others and/or
  2. I mine my memories focusing on the exact language used in conversations from my past, complete with unfinished sentences, regional colloquialisms and expressions that have double, triple and quadruple meanings.

It’s tiring but oh so telling. Listening closely to how we all question, answer, and even push out directives in everyday life and language is a great way to generate ideas for dialogue on the page. So often I get stuck, and my students do too, because we try too hard to create dialogue, to give our readers believable conversations in our stories. All we need to do is stop and listen to people in our present and past and give those encounters space on the blank page.

Is my Phys Ed teacher tale yet another paradox? Him telling sweaty and nervous me to “listen up” in that hot and smelly gym may have been annoying at the time but obviously, I heard something. And even found a story.

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