The Difference Between Listening and Pretending to Listen

“The difference between listening and pretending to listen, I discovered, is enormous. One is fluid, the other is rigid.  One is alive, the other is stuffed. Eventually I found a radical way of thinking about listening. Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you. When I’m willing to let them change me, something happens between us that’s more interesting than a pair of dueling monologues. Like so much of what I learned in the theater, this turned out to be how life works, too.”

Sketch: Emily Ledbetter

Alan Alda is quoted here in New Self New World, Recovering Our Senses in the Twenty-first Century by Philip Shepherd. While this book is not ostensibly about art, the ideas I’m reading have surprising relevance to some of my current thinking about creative process.

Listening to critical discussion is an essential skill in any creative practice. While it seems almost natural to take a defensive posture when someone talks about my work, the result of doing so is equivalent to Alda’s “dueling monologues”: I have my point of view and you have yours. We each defend our position with words and arguments, and the best argument wins. There’s nothing in this system that inherently supports the work of art: the work loses.  Instead, this method privileges a power dynamic between the arguing personalities. But through open and willing listening, where the artist can remove herself from the work in order to be open to being changed by what she hears, the work and the artist benefit. Energy flows away from winning the argument and toward closer scrutiny, engagement and discernment: the work wins.

But I would like to explore a more subtle and perhaps more essential notion of the power of listening. Specifically, the ability to recognize and value the work itself as a living relationship. With the first visible mark on a page I enter into an exchange with the media: I make a mark, I LISTEN, and then I respond. The creative process consists of this simple dynamic circle of action and response. I perform “real listening”, as Alda would put it, when I become willing to change in response to the work. This relationship to the work and to working process is far more gratifying than that of seeking a specific controlled outcome, which is no fun in the making and almost always yields a formulaic (boring!) result.

Apple study: Lexi Wang

Shepherd goes on to say:

You cannot find presence, freedom or creativity inside a world arrested by description, which is also to say you cannot find wholeness there—because any such world is a mere duplicate that has severed ties with the world it purports to represent. When you “pretend to listen,” whether onstage or off, you are actually paying attention to your own ideas about how to react and are using your face and body to “do” a duplicate of “listening” that is based on them; when you really listen, you abandon the foregone knowledge of how to react and, willing to “be”, you pay attention instead to “what is”.

Which leads me to another “aha”. There is a difference between merely rendering a visual description of a subject and representing the spirit of the looking. One is rote, robotic duplication, with particular attention to skillful rendering of correct relative proportion, perspective, scale, value etc., and the other is representation plus (what I call) verve. When I am willing to surrender to the work and become a participant in the conversation, rather than a master over it, I find myself involved in something bigger — and much more exciting — than mere me and my inherently limited ideas of how things might look. Effortful rendering on my own can be merely “duplication”. I am trying to achieve some quantitative, known goal. In this scenario, I “should” on myself.* Instead of being present, I privilege a removed, unrealized predefined future ideal. A more authentic practice engages a collaborative relationship between my skills and my hunch. That’s the verve. Verve emerges when I am brave enough to invite it, courteous enough to welcome it, and vivacious enough to throw a party for it.

Verve is something more than skill, and verve with no skill is not as strong as verve with skill. The duty and the mark of the artist, it seems, is to embrace and reveal this collaborative dynamic exchange between looking and sensing. When this happens, the work can become infinitely generative—the artist responding to the act of making and the viewer responding to the act of looking: both forever immersed in right now.

Cherry Sketch: Maria Misuiri

[*I have taken to heart the advice from brother Peter: Never should on yourself.]


About Nell Ruby

Atlanta Artist Teacher Citizen
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7 Responses to The Difference Between Listening and Pretending to Listen

  1. eledbetter13 says:

    I just wanted to comment that the first picture is in my sketchbook and its my glass cup.. **Emily Ledbetter

  2. Nell Ruby says:

    Thanks for noticing–I fixed the by line, it’s a beautiful glass cup!

  3. Great post Nell. I can’t wait to read the book.

    “Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you.” – Alan Alda. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. It completely links in with what we were talking about last week and teaching/learning styles.

    I also loved the bit at the end about participating in a conversation with your art and following your hunch. I want to throw a party for verve. Can it be a costume party?

    P.s. I’ll be quoting you on my blog. 🙂

  4. Nell Ruby says:

    It seems foreign and difficult to be open to being changed–I feel so insecure about it! Why? What strange piece of concrete am I clinging to? Will it sink me?

  5. Julia says:

    This reminds me of two lessons you taught me in school. The first was in an intro class and we were outside drawing trees and you told us all stop drawing the idea of tree and start drawing *that* specific tree. To pay attention to what makes it special and different from the idea of tree in our heads.

    The other was to let go of my work being precious. I think you told me to put my canvas down on the floor and walk all over it and drip paint on it. I about fainted at that thought! But in the end, letting go of my work as special and precious served me so much better. I was able to take a step back from what I worked on and see where I could improve and then move on from there. That has been so useful to me as a graphic designer, working with clients.

    • Nell Ruby says:

      That means I’ve been saying the same thing over and over for a number of years now…I can’t explain why that message still feels so “fresh”!

  6. L. Alembik says:

    You remind me of a favorite article, Jean Morman Unsworth’s “Drawing is Basic.”

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