Monday, November 30, 2009

Listening to Other Voices

In the NEW YORK TIMES' Saturday Art Section there was a fascinating article about Colum McCann, author of LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, who just won the National Book Award. McCann spoke about delving into other peoples' lives for a glimpse of significant but small events that were large influences in their lives. He listened to many voices as he traveled around the country, seeing each story, whether it spoke of generosity, terror, sadness, nastiness or love, as part of a larger story or novel.

McCann talked about "listening to other voices," part of the research a writer does in developing the story - children's authors and adult novelists.

So yesterday as I was reading the article I was sitting on a plane, confined for several hours. There were a lot of small children on board and I started to listen again to other young voices. Some didn't want to sit still, others wanted FOOD, and others settled in to read their books or watch a video. There were many voices and as things quieted down, I listened.

What do we notice when listening? When there are many voices? What do you concentrate on?

It was a shining and clear day and I listened to the four-year-old two seats away by the window. As the plane lifted off from Newark Airport we looked down at the Port of Newark/Elizabeth and at the ships at the loading docks next to the giant cranes filling up their cargo holes in preparation for setting out to sea. We watched small pleasure boats on New York Bay leaving white wakes in their paths, and as we headed inland a bit, she exclaimed at how green it was! Yes, I said, that's our Garden State!

She had many interesting insights and I listened for all I was worth. Someday a fragment of the voice will make it into a children's story. I'm going to keep listening - and writing.

What are the voices that you notice, concentrate on or collect?


  1. Eileen, you're so right. Listening is part of a writer's job. To listen -- to really listen -- is an acquired skill.

  2. Picture Book Idea Month has me listening hard! (It's been tough to come up with an idea a day for 30 days!)

    As far as the voices I'm listening to, I'm definitely getting a lot of great possibilities from my 3 year old. Other "voices" I love to collect include my students, my family stories and my childhood self.

  3. I frequently eavesdrop on my teenager when his friends are over - not for juicy stuff! just to hear how they banter back and forth with each other. Well, and they are also a cool group of kids, lol, so it's not all work! Also at the mall, bookstore, okay, anywhere. I'm a champion "listener"! You never know when you'll find or hear a gem.