My empty nest days are so quiet. I can go whole days without speaking to anyone, until Chris gets home from work. Writing at the backyard table, I hear scrub jays squawking and hummingbirds clicking. (When I played that video out here in the backyard, a hummingbird started clicking like crazy in response.) Today I heard the otherworldly sound of a bee swarm swirling over my neighbor’s yard, over my yard, and off into the hills–luckily those girls weren’t mine.
The mostly-quiet is and good for getting writing done but sometimes I miss the listening.
I used to spend so much time listening.
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When I was a columnist for home/school/life, I wrote an essay called “Listening to Lily.” In it, my girl is home from college, sitting on the kitchen counter, talking to me–a familiar scenario. In the essay I look back:
I didn’t understand how much homeschooling fueled these conversations until Lily went to high school, where her days were driven by the expectations of others. Lily fought against it. Homeschooling had taught her that you should spend your days doing what you love. And if you weren’t, you should figure out why. You should talk about it. School rattled Lily’s internal GPS, and so she talked, like she’d always talked. Calculating new route it said, again and again, and up on the kitchen counter she’d jump. To tell me where she was headed.
Early on, I’d never have imagined that listening would be one of my most essential skills as a homeschooling parent, right up there with a strong read-aloud voice, a radar for promising opportunities, a tolerance for messes. But there you have it.
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I did another webinar last month. Originally I titled it, “Dictation: The Super Effective Writing Tool No One Talks About.”
After the webinar, I retitled the replay, “Dictation: A Revolutionary Approach to Helping Kids Become Writers.”
I still don’t think I have that title right. I’m afraid that leading off with the word dictation gives the wrong idea. Dictation doesn’t sound fun. Dictation doesn’t sound revolutionary. Which may be why so many fewer people signed up for that webinar than they did for the first one.
This makes me a little sad because what I’m talking about in that webinar is something that works for toddlers and teenagers and college students and even adults who want to write.
What I’m really talking about is listening.
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I’m thinking about the work I’ve done helping high school seniors with their college application essays. My own kids, lots of homeschoolers, students at the school where I volunteer. It’s such a privilege to be in that liminal space with them, as they look back at their lives and dream forward. I wrote about it here. Here’s a snippet:
My job with the high school students is mostly to listen. I get them talking: about their internships, their interests, their family lives. They come to know me as the lady with the Post-Its: as they’re talking, I write down what they say, one idea per Post-It. Then we look at the Post-Its and sort the ones that go together, put them in piles.
We talk about the piles that excite them most.
As they speak, I’m listening for the times when their voices rise, or their words come fast, or their hands come alive with gesture. I point out the places where they seem to get the most worked up. Sometimes they don’t recognize the importance of those particular stories. That they’re revealing, in those moments, who they are.
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I think back to Mr. T as a little guy. When he was four, I was so busy homeschooling with his older siblings at ten and fourteen that it was hard to find time just for him. But as you may have noticed, he’s a talker and a storyteller and I quickly discovered how much he loved it when I took time to write down his stories and ideas.
It was a time of day when he had my full attention. When his very mind took top billing. When I listened with utter focus because I wanted to record his every word correctly.
Over time I came to see just how much he was getting from those times together. He was developing a writer’s voice. A writer’s mind. Skills like grammar and punctuation–typically boring stuff–that became thrilling in the context of his own ideas.
I came to think of these times as dictation sessions. But that word again–maybe it doesn’t convey the radical nature of what he and I were doing. We turned the school writing model on its head. T developed a voice as a writer first and foremost while the mechanics of writing evolved, slowly and surely.
But mostly, we loved that time together. Him relaying what he most wanted to talk about. Me getting a tour around his mind. Listening.
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During the day when I’m writing, I try to tune out everything else. I ignore my email and Instagram. I delay responding to texts. But if one of my kids calls, I pick up.
I can’t help myself.
The oldest is less of a talker than his siblings, so when he calls and wants to talk, I’m here for it. His sister is often calling to talk, as ever, about something she’s trying to figure out and she knows I’ll want to help. The youngest is usually wandering the streets of Chicago just wanting to chat, and I so miss my daily dose of laughing with him.
I pick up.
I can’t resist the old call to listen. My writing gets delayed but I never regret it.
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Lately, I keep coming across info for adult writers about the power of having listeners.
I don’t have any personal experience with Write or Die Tribe but another writer recommended it lately, and I’m intrigued that they offer “Talk-It-Out” workshops for both fiction and nonfiction writers: Each participant gets 5-10 minutes to sum up the piece they’re working on and what they’re struggling with. In this instructor-guided live workshop session, we’ll talk through your work, ask insightful questions and offer ideas and resources for how to move forward.
A few weeks back in a fantastic Creative Nonfiction Magazine workshop on incorporating research into nonfiction, instructor Holly Haworth recommended the technique of talking through our research with another person. “This will help you distill your ideas and turn it into a narrative,” she said. “And if you’re lucky, the other person will ask questions to help you refine your thoughts further.” (That sounds a lot like my handy-dandy process for helping kids write nonfiction based on other sources, which is where those aforementioned Post-Its come in.)
“I just want to attest to the wonders of dictation for older students as well. I teach introductory college composition. Today in office hours, as I was laboring to explain to a student how to generate a thesis for a problem paragraph, I flashed back to this Wonderfarm series and thought, why not try it? I asked my student, “What do you think this author’s main point is?” And (this is the magic part), I picked up my pen and started writing.
The results were pretty astonishing. My student had a topic sentence and three main points in about ninety seconds. She really had mastered the concept of the assignment–she just hadn’t been able to get it onto the page. I tried it with the next three students in a row, and nearly every time, the thinking was right there–it had just been obscured by inexperience or uncertainty (or plain bad advice) about writing.
The best part was the look on the first student’s face when she left the office. We’d just determined that she had a fairly stiff revision to pull off for tomorrow, but she was truly beaming–she practically skipped out. I suspect she felt heard and appreciated by a writing teacher for the first time in a long time–and I really was hearing and appreciating her better.
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With older kids and adult writers, sometimes what’s needed is simply another person to listen, to help make sense of what matters most in what they’re trying to write.
With younger kids, sometimes what’s needed is simply another person to write down the brilliant ideas streaking forth fast and furious.
And a corollary: sometimes having someone listen to what we have to say can help us become better writers.
The simple fact of someone else’s undivided attention can lead to big things.
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Years ago, I read a story about how writers like Milton, Henry James, and Dostoevysky had women transcriptionists record their work as they dictated it. As Dostoevysky’s transcriptionist, Anna Grigorievna, transcribed she also offered feedback: “There were times when I was amazed by my own boldness in expressing my views about the novel, and still more amazed by the indulgence with which a brilliant writer used to listen to these almost childish remarks and opinions.”
Eventually the two married and Dostoevysky referred to Grigorievna as his “collaborator.”
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In a world of scattered attention, there is something invaluable about having someone listen carefully to you.
There’s also great honor in being the listener: the one granted access to another person’s thoughts.
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Maybe I should have called them something different than dictation, these writing techniques I’ve learned to use with kids. Maybe Talk-It-Out would have been better. Or The Listening Project. Or The Dostoevysky Method.
Regardless, there are ideas in that dictation webinar applicable for all ages, and I’d really love to share them with more people. Please feel free to pass that link around! Taking dictation could be such a fun thing to do this summer with a younger child, no expectations attached. Or it might be something to keep in mind if you know an older kid needing help writing an essay soon, for a college application or otherwise.
Maybe you’ll give it a listen. Meanwhile I’ll be here, listening to the jays and hummingbirds, waiting for calls from my kids, clicking away at my keyboard.
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—Stranger Care. A memoir by Sarah Sentilles about navigating the foster care system in the hopes of adopting a child. Eventually she and her husband bring home a three-day-old baby girl. Before reading the book, I didn’t know much about the complications of the foster care system and how hard it can be on the heart for all involved. The book is written in short, 1-2 page titled sections, a style I always love, and interlaced with short, resonant sections on nature. (I’m planning to read That Mean Old Yesterday by Stacey Patton soon–another foster care memoir, this one from the perspective of someone who survived abusive foster care. It was recommended to me when I was looking for books that intersperse short historical sections into a narrative. Patton does that with slavery. Sounds powerful.)
—Royal Corona Bean Stew. You’ve been liking the recipes I’ve been linking to, but I’ll apologize right now for being a bean junkie. And as fellow bean junkies know, Rancho Gordo is the kingdom and the Royal Corona is queen! Anyway, I made this recipe–theres a video too–with RG’s beans and it was incredible. Or as Chris and I like to say as we scrape our plates: that was restaurant quality. P.S. It’s delicious even without the fancy mushroom dust.
—Chapter 510. If you happen to be Bay Area local, this youth writing center where I volunteer here in Oakland is incredible–and they just opened their new storefront, The Dept. of Make-Believe! It’s a super cool space that sells youth-written books and other paraphernalia for booklovers. They offer awesome free youth writing programs and open mics! It’s run by people who I admire very much and I really, really recommend volunteering with them.