I worked for over twenty-five years as a Gestalt Psychotherapist and became an extremely good listener. To listen well, you need to bring as much as yourself as possible to the encounter with another. You shuttle between your own emotional and physical experience in response and notice how a person is speaking, as well as attending to the content. The whole body and being are involved.
As a writer, when I create characters, they live and breathe in my imagination. I picture them moving around in their world, the sound of their voices, the expression on their faces. I ‘listen’ to them to understand their motivations, empathise with their situations and guess what they might think, feel and do. I am sure most writers do this. Often, writers say their characters begin to have a life of their own – do surprising things. But in order for those characters to stay convincing in their actions, it is necessary to pay them close attention.
Gestalt therapy is primarily concerned with raising awareness, and the Gestalt therapist’s focus is to help a person become more aware of their experience – thoughts, feelings, sensations – in the present moment. In that way, change happens. Of course, there is a lot more to Gestalt therapy theoretically, (Read more here: www.gestalt.org/yontef.htm ) but the practice of awareness is something I always enjoyed.
Being immersed in awareness practices for years, doesn’t make it any easier to write. Sometimes I am only minimally aware of my bad writing habits. For example, I have just edited this blog and altered clumsy sentences. I am sure there are others. If I look carefully at my prose, read it out loud and listen, I can have moments of clarity. One simple question I used to ask as a Gestalt therapist was: ‘What are you aware of right now?’ You could ask yourself the same question about your writing – eg. ‘What am I aware of about my writing style?’ Or ‘What am I aware of about the process of writing?’ Listen to the answer. For eg. I asked myself this question and became more aware of constructing awkward sentences. I can’t explain the grammatical errors but if I refreshed my knowledge of grammar and understood what I was doing, it might help my writing in general – now that’s a new awareness.
When I was a psychotherapist, I sometimes used to read a poem or a short story before I started work, because it would put me in a different frame of mind and allow me to be aware of something different in myself or in the person I was working with. Reading before writing is a good practice to adopt. Like a dream, the story or poem will feed your imagination, shift your awareness and help you listen to your characters in a different way.