Arts & Entertainment, Writing

Listening Comes Before Writing

Joy Harjo

Lesson time 13:12 min

For many people, writing is what happens when you sit down and put pen to paper. But before we hastily jump into writing, we need to remember to listen. How can you create space for listening and inspiration before embarking upon writing? Joy shows you how to reach new levels of listening by opening up to the whole of human experience.

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Topics include: Listening Comes Before Writing * Learning to Listen * Case Study: “Everybody Has a Heartache” * Case Study: “Frog in a Dry River” * Reach New Levels of Listening


JOY HARJO: The Earth is leaning sideways, and a song is emerging from the floods and fires. Urgent tendrils lift toward the sun. You must be friends with silence to hear. The songs of the guardians of silence are the most powerful. They are the most rare. Listening is most crucial to writing poetry, to living a good life, to creating, to raising children, and I think these days, it's hard, more and more difficult to find listening places. Even in this world where there's so much interference and so much noise, when you listen to silence, it's so full of everything. It's sort of like how white light is full of every color, and yet it's white light. It's the same thing with silence. Silence is like the white light of sound. I think listening has been one of the hardest things for me. The act of listening or learning how to listen, that's what all of my poetry has been about from the very beginning, is one, finding a place to listen, because when I started writing, I was a single mother with two children. I'd been a teenage mother, worked half time. Then I went to school full time, and raising a family and all that entails on almost nothing, I found a listening place in writing poetry, and it also gave me a place to explore the impossible life I was dealing with in trying to manage. She set the howling contest standard high. She took a sip. Let her rip. [GUITAR RIFF] I think of writing as a call and response. Call and response is central to Muskogee Creek music and a lot of jazz, blues, gospel, et cetera. But there's a leader, you know, the leader that sings, and then there's the there's the following response in voice. And so when I write, I think I'm following. That silence is the voice, and then the following is the writing. It's like listen, follow, listen and follow. When you learn to listen, you start to hear what's beneath the surface. So this poem came when I was waiting in Chicago for a flight on a Friday afternoon, and Friday afternoons are always busy in the airports. And I was people watching. Maybe I should say people listening, because there's a lot you can see, but there is always the story beneath what you see, and that's where listening comes in. I'll just read a little of this. I won't read the whole poem, and I might move in and out. "Everybody Has a Heartache-- A Blues." "In the United Terminal in Chicago at five on a Friday afternoon, the sky is breaking with rain and wind, and all the flights are delayed forever. We will never get to where we are going, and there's no way back to where we've been. The sun and the moon have disappeared to an island far from anywhere. Everybody has a heartache. "The immense gatekeeper of Gate Z-100 keeps his cool. This guardian of the sky teases me and makes me smile through the mess, building up his airline by stacking it against the company I usually travel. Come on over to our side. We'll treat you nice. I l...

About the Instructor

As the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo has written poetry that explores her personal experiences, the history of her ancestors, and social change. Now she’s teaching you how to find the language to express yourself and approach your art with deeper motivation. Explore rhythm in art, navigate the world of revisions, and unlock your innate creativity to help you express your unique stories.

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Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo, the 23rd U.S. Poet Laureate, teaches you how to find the language to express yourself and approach your art with deeper meaning.

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