Several months ago, I had the honor of interviewing author, artist, therapist, and friend, Philip Kenney on the release of his new book, The Writer’s Crucible: Meditations on Emotion, Being, and Creativity (Inkwater Press, 2018). Originally, I intended the interview to be a three-part series, but because Phil’s responses are so generous in depth and spirit, asking me to slow my pace as a reader, I felt it best to offer this last of the three interviews (as far as the book is concerned) as a series of meditations.
Though my question focuses on “the artist” as the subject, I paint the word with a broad stroke. We are all artists. To be alive and aware, to observe, to feel, to love with brave hearts, to be in awe, is our art. We take experience, internalize it, and create something with it. And if we have listened well enough to the muse, to spirit, God, our higher self, we learn from what the art gives back to us. But we must give ear.
In chapter 27,”The Reader,” you write, “Most people come to reading through listening.” Maybe we were lovingly read to as children. Maybe it was, as in your case, a gifted teacher who enacted scenes or characters from books that create this connection, and for many, this life-long love. This idea makes me wonder how artists beyond writers might listen to their art form. And how people in general come to understand through really listening. Care to riff on this?
I love beginning our conversation with the question of listening, Erin, because it takes us directly to what I consider the core of our relationship to creativity, spirituality and intimacy with self and others. I remember writing that chapter and the moment it dawned on me that we learn to read by listening. Of course! We learn while snuggled up close in a secure attachment with a loved one whose voice conveys the resonance of a love for story, life and the mystery of communicating meaning from one soul to another. No wonder we get hooked for life!
Probably because listening is so essential to learning to talk, and the expression of love, it is not surprising that we tend to take it for granted. Emotionally and spiritually, it holds a place in our psyches as important and fundamental as breathing. Few things hurt as much as not being heard and few things can calm the heart as much as being truly listened to and understood. And being understood in a thorough way is among our more primary needs, is it not?
Surprisingly, as a people we don’t know how to listen very well. Or, you could say we listen in a superficial way, largely conditioned by cultural restrictions on what is important. In other words, we seldom take an empathic position that listens for the emotional truth being expressed and the meaning of that reality to the speaker. We tend not to trust listening and are quick to offer up advice, and/or, a cognitive perspective meant to move our friend, child or partner out of their current experience and on to where we think they should be. That makes for all sorts of trouble.
Listening becomes even more essential and profound when it comes to spirituality and art. A number of years ago, in reading the work of Brother David Steindl-Rast, the Austrian born Benedictine Monk, made famous for his beautiful work on thankfulness and gratitude, I was astounded to learn that the Benedictine commitment was to obedience. To this guy, who came of age in the 60’s and understood obedience to be synonymous with compliance (a dirty word) and subservience (even worse) I was flabbergasted to learn that obedience comes from the Latin word, oboedire, meaning to give ear to (love that) and of course, to listen. How simple.
Why listening? Most religious texts and scientific maps of creation begin with sound. The word, the bang. Again, and again, mythologies across cultures refer to primordial sound as the first stirrings of the universe. For an infant in utero, the sound of mother’s heartbeat and breath are its first awakenings to its own life and the life of another. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that spiritual practices and meditations are often organized around a sound, either the rhythm of breath or the repetition of a mantra. Listening then is an act of communion and connection with the living spirit pulsing through our being.
It’s not different with writing and art in my opinion. The creative work I trust most begins with listening and ends with listening. When it starts with trying to be clever, it inevitably feels contrived. So, I begin by doing nothing but sitting. Actually, in most cases, words and ideas have already come fluttering by from that ineffable creative source we might call the unconscious or the fertile void. Whatever we name it, it beckons, often quietly and if we are quiet-enough inside and paying attention, we can hear the murmuring of the muse and gently begin pulling on the threads.
Check out these precious lines from the conclusion of Wendell Berry’s poem, How to Be a Poet:
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
Those lines do me in. I’m left speechless every time I read this. Writing begins with listening for what comes from silence and concludes with listening to my own voice read what I have written and making sure it has not disturbed the silence. This is an artist’s act of obedience: to listen and make sure one’s own agenda has not disrupted the prayers coming from the creative source.
And isn’t it the same with friendship? We don’t listen well. Typically, we’re too busy formulating our defense, or a brilliant counterpoint rather than listening carefully and empathically for the truth of what we’re being told. Often, we are distracted with our own desire to be heard rather than putting ourselves aside for the moment it takes to discover the particular nuance of what another is trying to communicate. In other words, the problem we face with listening is similar in creative work, spiritual practice and intimacy: how do we get out of our own way and give ourselves to another?