Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Q&A with Christian McEwen


Photo by Joanna Eldridge Morrisey

Christian McEwen is the author of the new book In Praise of Listening. Her other books include World Enough & Time. She lives in western Massachusetts.  


Q: What inspired you to write In Praise of Listening?  


A: I had done a number of interviews for my previous books — World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, and Sparks from the Anvil: The Smith College Poetry Interviews, as well as Legal Tender: Women & the Secret Life of Money.  


I loved the way new information would emerge in the course of the conversation — exhilarating both for the person talking, and for me as listener.  


Just last month, I found this confirmed by a wonderful book called The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow.  


They write that “the window of consciousness” during which we can hold a thought or work out a problem, tends to be open for an average of only seven seconds. But there is one great exception to this, and that is when we’re talking to someone else. “In conversation we can hold thoughts and reflect on problems sometimes for hours on end.”  


And in that, for me, lies much expansive delight.  


Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about the act of listening?  


A: There is a strange tendency towards cliché when people write or talk about the act of listening. It’s as if they believe that one size really will fit all. “Listen empty,” say the authorities. “Try not to judge or fix.” “Don’t interrupt when someone else is speaking.” “Look them in the eye.” “Be patient, silent, wait.”  


The rules proliferate, earnest, literal-minded. For me it feels like trying to dance in iron shoes.  


True listening, joyful listening, delighted, ardent tell-me-more-ish listening has less to do with keeping quiet while someone talks than with the questions you’re inspired to ask, the welcome you extend, the quality of interest and encouragement.


Cadence matters here, and a shared sense of pace, a foundation of trust and equality. It matters too, for someone to be able to say, “I’m not up for this right now. Can we make another time to talk? Tomorrow, next weekend?”

At once you are free to move beyond a routine “checking in” to something infinitely more expansive and surprising. A massive door creaks open. Several walls fall down. No one can predict what will happen next.


Q: The writer Kim Stafford said of the book, “In a world all too strident in shouting, this book leads us to velvet voices, hints and murmurs, to speaking silence and kinship whispered for our remedy.” What do you think of that description?


A: The first third of my book focuses on human-centered listening (listening to childhood, listening inwards, etc.).


But soon it moves out into the surrounding world, with chapters on listening to the wild, or to the little sounds of every day, until it reaches a place where listening overlaps with what one might call “the ear of the heart” (communing with the dead, listening to silence or the spirit), to arrive, finally, at a kind of global listening, where there is nothing or no one that is not with listening to.


When Kim Stafford writes of “velvet voices… speaking silence” and “whispered kinship,” I feel he’s hearing that strong draw toward the more-than-human world. Many thanks for his kind words and generous listening.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: An expanded understanding of what listening might mean. A new willingness to pause and listen for themselves, to remove the little earbuds from their ears.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have been choosing quotes for an anthology called The Little Book of Listening.


Q: Anything else we should know?  


A: In Praise of Listening appeared on 10th October. I have a number of readings and events coming up in the weeks that follow. My website is 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment