The Craft of Listening: The Story’s Unique Scale

By Koss

A few years ago, while in deep grief, I became aware that stories and poems reside in my body, not just in my head. A poem might wake me up in the form of a low thrum in the night. Sometimes every beat of the poem would come before the words arrived–as a rap in my gut or in the cavity of my chest–one that seemed to extend out of my body–into the air and the nearby woods. It was an internal sound, an external sound, both far and close, and yet, distinct. A poem or prose announcing itself via vibration. It emerged from my heartbeat, my pulse, and from the sounds of the trains miles away, and the crickets in their late-night, end-of-season, last calls for living. Bits of writing also emerged from silence, the more insidious sound of grief, made especially audible when one loses one they live with.

I already knew what grief sounded like having lost someone else dear to me when I was a caregiver. But the more recent bereavement was complicated by other losses, job loss, people lost to COVID, Trumpism, and all the other existential stuff and uncertainty of the pandemic. There was, in all of this, much to turn off, which in turn, amplified the quiet. Life as I had known it came to a complete halt.

Of course, my stories and poems also have origins in what is lived, survived, and floating in the ether. And sure, my brain contains neurological impulses and consolidations of memory–I know these things, but my awareness dramatically shifted during this time of my life when loss and the pandemic birthed a profoundly still landscape, one that presented alternately as both fertile and barren territory. And everything I had been through was pulsing through my body as if trying to find an exit, an expression.

It took this severe stripping away of life’s accoutrements and also, its noise, to develop this sensitivity. They say, when one sense is removed, the others are heightened. It was kind of like that, only it wasn’t a sense organ, it was my world as I knew it yanked from beneath me—my sense of security and faith in logic.

This awareness came through the beats and word fragments that drubbed like rain, luring me to my keyboard where I had to honor their call at all costs. It was in the afternoon or more often, late at night when every sound could be heard for miles, from the distant highway traffic to the frogs and screeching creatures of the night. The sounds were persistent, both the external symphonies and my internal ones. And I was subservient to their insistence.

The stories had their own urgencies, their own lives, their own rhythms and structures, and it was my job to discern them. They wanted me to listen. It was a particular quality of rhythm and pitch that seemed to heighten the relationship between sound and writing. And I found that, even while not writing forms, my poems got better and my poetry practice enhanced my fiction writing.

I think I was always tuned to stresses, where they should go, and how many syllables sound “right” in a line as I wrote it. This is just as important in free verse writing (or any kind of writing) as it is in forms, but there is no mathematical way to produce it. It’s not a calculated process. It improves with experience. But mostly, it comes out of a stillness and sensing what the piece needs and wants. My ear knows things, even the ear of my mind.

It’s when I can see it as a reader/beholder that I see how it’s working, the sound of it, its timbre and pitch. And this “rightness” is obtained by listening, even in my head, although reading aloud also helps—in all forms of writing.

There is a need to craft, to hone certain skills, and to master things. To be a master, including of my own creations. As a painter, I learned about color theory, composition, and technique. Craft. And in creative writing, there is an audience to consider, and fiction-specific skills like creating narrative arc, voice, subtext, and other genre-specific mattering skills that, while essential, are not the heart of the expression, which is that what disturbs me out of bed late at night or rattles around in my gut for years. Yes, it can also be a rattling, something soft and faint. Familiar. And enduring. A more subtly insistent utterance. The thing about sound is it reverberates long after we can hear it and can approach us in frequencies inaudible to our ears. A sound is a ghost in that regard—and a sometimes-ghost-story.

Poetry craft involves aspects of sound more than other writing genres, whether writing with traditional forms and meter or not. I think about repetition, alliteration, stresses, and other sound-related qualities of poetry… But none of these things make my writing any good if I can’t read the pulse of the unwritten piece. Yes, listening is also a craft. It is passive, a yin art. And it’s possible to hear the sound and form of writing that exists before we are aware of it. Yes, the story’s form also relates to sound, just as different sized crystal bowls produce different frequencies. Form is a sound-vessel-in-waiting. I often refer to my writing, especially grief writing, as “emotional containers” or “story sounds.”

I learned in an overtone chanting class something I already suspected, that every human body has its own scale and personal resonance. In overtone chanting, you produce multiple sounds through the vocal cavity, which is very unique for each person. It’s possible to move the sound throughout your body, which is why it is considered a powerful self-healing tool. You are, in effect, singing in your body and, when doing it creatively, discovering what sound(s) your body makes and which ones vibe with you.

While we’re influenced by culture and our upbringing, we likely relate to certain music, pitches, and chords because of how our internal frequencies respond to them. We are sound receptacles of a sort with our own flavored frequencies. And sweet notes, and cool ones, and high and low. They say that specific sound frequencies can be mapped to certain parts of the body (there are even tuning fork and crystal bowl sets sold for this purpose), but personal experience and anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. The same sound will impact any two people differently and resonate in different locations in the body. There is a mystical aspect to sound that falls outside of any mathematical principles. There is a profound and magical aspect of writing that falls outside of what we commonly call craft. But we all have the ability to listen.

Even if one doesn’t believe in a higher power or that we are a microcosm of something greater, one can imagine oneself as a creator god and our stories as minicosms of ourselves. And when we are still, and the traffic presents itself at 3 AM, our stories might also be pulsing from our solar plexuses in a beat, a repetition, or a line. Or they might emerge from the heart or as ancient sacral narratives. They have their own scales to teach with pauses and stops, shapes and structures, and a frequency already tuned to our ears. And they tell us it’s time to get up, listen, and write.


Koss (she/they/them) is a mixed-race, queer poet, writer, and artist with publications in Chiron Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, MER, Moist Poetry, Beaver Magazine, Sage Cigarettes, Spillway, diode poetry, Five Points, Moonpark Review, Soflopojo, BULL, Sugar Sugar Salt Lit, and many others.  She had work in Best Small Fictions 2020 and won the 2021 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry contest. Their chapbook, Dancing Backwards Towards Pluperfect is coming from Diode Editions in ’24. Find links to their work at: Connect on Twitter @Koss51209969.