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The Intuitive WriterReview - The Intuitive Writer
Listening to Your Own Voice
by Gail Sher
Penguin USA, 2002
Review by Anne Philbrow
Nov 25th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 48)

This is no 'how-to' instruction book for writers.  Indeed, it does not pretend to be – it is described as a 'guidebook', which is slightly misleading.  It is one of those dipping books; a page or two to be read and pondered slowly.  Or if Zen Buddhism is not your style, then to be thrown out of the window as quickly as possible.  This has made it irritating, interesting, obscure and occasionally enlightening.  And also difficult to review.

The author, Gail Sher, is ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk, as well as being a psychotherapist and prolific poet.

The only thing to do is to read the book as a poetic offering, enjoy some of the metaphors and phraseology, and stop – frequently – to consider a phrase or idea.  If, like me, you are more of a Western analytical bent, then try not to gnash your teeth at the meandering and foggy style.  Stop and listen to the poetry.

Sher often talks about the 'imagining ear', to which we must all listen to enable the writer to grow.  She introduces it thus:

'Turn on your imagining ear and tune into your ignorant fat fragility.  Have a chat.  Talk long into the night'.

The book is divided into sections and subdivided into short (one or two page) meditations on the section's theme.  The main subject is listening, as reflected in the section headings:  listening to oneself/the world/to words, then 'process' and finally 'listening is forever; an apotheosis'.

The subsection titles are intriguing and sometimes maddening.

A maddening example is: 'The “Thought of Hearing” Kills Hearing.  The Only Hearing There Is Has Never Not Existed.'  To my pedestrian brain, suffering no doubt from its confining analytical outlook, this simply comes across as pretentious babble.

 However, the book is redeemed by such headings as: 'I call them Belcher-Squelchers.  They go Slug-Toot, Slug-Toot, Slug-Toot.'  To her credit, Gail Sher often shows a quiet sense of humor.

Other headings include:  'My White and Your White Aren't Necessarily the Same', “The Redwood Floor Returned a Different Rhythm for Each of Our Footfalls”, 'Doodle with Your Ear'.  Only the incurious could fail to read on.

One of her recurring themes is the importance of silences, or gaps.  I'm reminded of the jazz musician who said the timing between notes was as important as the notes themselves.  Indeed, Sher herself quotes musician Richard Sennett as saying that Stravinsky's Violin Concerto is as much about silence as sound.

'Trappists and Benedictines practice silence.  Within a context of silence, a sound (a word) means something.  A person hearing one will likely pay attention.'  There are many such interesting ideas dotted throughout the book.

Sher makes liberal use of stories and anecdotes to illustrate her points.  For example, she quotes a story about the young Matisse:  'He [Matisse] .. invented a new colour, and remembered all his life how crushed he felt when his father pointed out there was no such thing.'

 She garners her parables from casual conversations, texts and religious writings, all of which combine to give a more forceful and meaningful flavour to her own words.

Her own writing is rich in metaphor, which often makes it a pleasure to read: 'The imagining ear...is grounded in the present.  It is right here, right now.  While it may feel muddy, dirty, wet...buried at the bottom is a different kind of pleasure – freedom.'

There is a magical, fairy-tale quality to her writing, so you can occasionally forgive her for apparently not making any sense while you enjoy the imagery. 

As a book to help an aspiring writer, this is not what I would recommend (although, in fairness, she does toss out an occasional concrete suggestion for a writing exercise). But by all means have a copy alongside the sometimes prosaic instruction books, if you are of a poetic frame of mind (and anyone wishing to write creatively must have some poetry in them).  It is also worth reading for the stories and odd sparks of ideas.  So – not a 'must-have', but try it and see if it is to your taste.

 

©  2002 Anne Philbrow
 

Anne Philbrow writes of herself:

I am a self-employed video producer and teach music and drama on a part-time basis. I have a BA Hons in Philosophy from UCW, Aberystwyth, UK and have done postgraduate research in Moral and Social Philosophy, specializing in Animal Rights. In my spare time, I do some freelance writing (book and theater reviews, articles) and have contributed to Philosophy in Review. I am a user of mental health services.


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