Daniel José Older says that learning to deeply listen can transform your work.
Fortune’s Include U Challenge for September 5:
Close your eyes and spend five or ten minutes listening to the sounds around you. What story can you tell yourself about your world?
Instructor: Daniel José Older, New York Times bestselling young adult fiction writer, composer, workshop leader, power expert
It’s a question that comes up in every seminar, speaking event or panel, says writer and composer Daniel José Older. “How do you write someone who isn’t you?”
Older became a breakout literary star in 2015, when his first novel, Half-Resurrection Blues, was published by Penguin. It was the first installment of his Bone Street Rumba series, a gritty New York-based tale about the New York Council of the Dead, a group of super-agents who protect the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead; the film and television rights were promptly optioned by Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose’s production company. Up until then, the former emergency medical technician had been writing mostly at night.
Older’s next novel, “Shadowshaper,” quickly became a New York Times YA bestseller. The story centers on young Sierra Santiago who comes to embrace a magical element of her Puerto Rican heritage (with some African and Tano thrown in) and ability to summon powerful spirits through mural-making to help save a vibrant and gentrifying Brooklyn from a variety of threats — from the police and real estate developers, to a zombie and an evil anthropologist. To build complex characters within authentic urban settings, Older uses a process he calls deep listening. “It’s not taught in creative writing classes,” says Older. “It’s not the kind of thing we’re taught to develop as writers in any sort of strategic or thoughtful way.”
“Can you truly listen to someone else, to what they’re saying in such a way that you’re not spending your time preparing to rebut them?” he asks. The key is to think more deeply about power and the way the world operates. “Can you look inward to understand your positioning in the realm of power – not just your opinion, but where you are placed? What power do you have, what power don’t you have?”
Older, who has become an outspoken advocate for diversity and representation in publishing, politics and beyond, says that deep listening has a role to play in all these difficult conversations.
“Power always has to be a part of your thought process,” he says. “Without it, everything we talk about becomes a wash, and we’re left with universal sentiments, – like ‘all human beings count’ – that ultimately mean nothing.”
For today’s challenge, Daniel José Older wants you to close your eyes and spend five or ten minutes really listening to the world around you.
“The traditional way we meditate is to go inward,” he says. “For this exercise, I want you to focus outward, and listen to the symphony that the world is playing around you. It could be anything, the creaks of the building, the birds chirping, traffic sounds – listen to that. There are stories being told in those sounds. What are the meanings of all the sounds you heard? Tell yourself a story based on that music.”
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