First Listen: Writing Workshops Inspired by This Year's One Book, One Philadelphia Selection

By Brittanie S. RSS Wed, January 30, 2019

What’s the difference between hearing and listening? Kirsten, our instructor from the Drexel Writers’ Room, asked us this question last week in a workshop inspired by Sing, Unburied, Sing. We were gathered at the Institute for Community Justice at 12th and Chestnut, spread out with notebooks and pens and learning names. We heard the question being asked, the sound of the words, and looked for the meaning behind them.

Jojo understands. In the novel, on the Stone family farm, animals toss noises into the air and clearly identify themselves—pig means pig, cricket means cricket, etc—making a backdrop of sounds behind characters’ conversations, behind the story Pop is slowly telling Jojo in words. Jojo isn’t only hearing the sounds, though, he’s also listening through all of his senses, including touch and sight:

"When the goats licked my hand and head-butted me while nibbling at my fingers and bleated, I heard: The salt is so sharp and good—more salt. When the horse Pop keeps bowed his head and shimmied and bucked so that his sides gleamed like wet red Mississippi mud, I understood: I could leap over your head, boy, and oh I would run and run and you would never see anything more than that. I could make you shake."

At this workshop, we tapped into our five senses to practice listening. We described our memories of home: it smells like onions and butter, Old Spice, our sisters’ perfume; home tastes like spaghetti and rum-flavored donuts; it sounds like the voice of our grandmother and looks like a blue living room with coffee carpet. Home isn’t a place so much as wherever our children are, where our mom is, wherever Christmas happened, anyone’s kitchen, if we’re the ones cooking.

In Sing, Richie says "home is a place in the earth that opens up and speaks to you." How do things speak to us, how do we speak to each other? A million ways.

As we volunteered to share these sensory details, we had a chance to listen—not just respond to or hear the words, but truly perceive and witness one another. Kirsten suggested some listening tools that really helped and worked well. And, I love how she mentioned that in the novel, each person has a form of sensitivity or perception that helps them to connect: Pop and Jojo understand animals, Mam understands herbs and plants, and Jojo, Leonie, and Kayla understand the dead. They all listen to the same world speaking in different ways.

I had such a good time at the workshop. Luckily there are two more during this year's One Book season! One is next week, on Tuesday, February 5 at the Dornsife Center, and another is on Saturday, March 9 at Why Not Prosper. I can’t wait to go plug in at both and hope to meet you there.

View our full calendar for other One Book, One Philadelphia 2019 events!

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