West Wing Weekly Roundtable

So far we’ve talked a lot about the term “generous listening” coined by Krista Tippet in “Becoming Wise.” It seems like generous listening can take many forms. It can mean listening to someone intently, asking insightful and detailed follow up questions, or allowing oneself to listen to and truly experience a view different from our own.

The two assigned West Wing Weekly podcasts are excellent examples of generous listening. The hosts, Joshua Malina and Hrishikesh Hirway give their interviewees their full attention and develop interesting and precise questions to provoke great story-telling. In the first episode, they have on Aaron Sorkin, the writer of The West Wing. They question him about his writing process and about his workaholic habits. It is made evident by his responses that Sorkin himself also practices generous listening in order to write his hit TV show. As he experiences the world around him, he is constantly taking notes and developing them into story lines and he incorporates what is going on in the reality into his stories. He also demonstrates generous listening in his ability to represent two sides of an argument in the show. He states that he enjoys the sound of two smart competing arguments and that he fell in love with asking the question “Have you looked at this way?” This requires the ability to listen and develop further inquiries to opposing points of view, rather than simply coming up with counter-arguments to support his own views. Attention to detail is another key factor of generous listening. We hear Malina, Hirway, and Sorkin discuss the evolution of the opening score. They bring up minor changes, like the addition of instruments and better sound quality, as the show got more popular. This certainly is an example of generous listening! With Sorkin’s extreme attention to detail comes the habit, or curse, of infinitely nit-picking minute flaws to making tiny alterations to his work. He admits that he has not completed a single piece of writing that he would want to re-write. However, Sorkin does not have time to do this while juggling multiple TV show scripts. He must “point the camera at his first draft.”

In the second assigned episode, Malina and Hirway interview the actress, Emily Proctor. She demonstrates a similar attentiveness to detail as Sorkin. She admits that as she watched herself in a scene where she delivers an argumentative monologue aimed at tearing down her opponent, played by Rob Lowe, that she felt disappointed. She regrets the tone of voice she used to delivered her final punch line. Malina and Hirway disagree. They believe she delivered it perfectly. Proctor also reveals that she and her co-star John Spencer would practice scenes outside of rehearsals. This also shows just how careful the actors were about how they delivered their lines.

These artists have an ear for generous listening and are able to pick up on subtleties that often go unnoticed by ordinary people. This translates into their inability to be 100% pleased with much of their work. I can strongly relate to this, as I often wish I could go back and re-do most of what I have written in college.

Do you guys think that generous listening is unpractical in the rush of our busy everyday lives? Or can we channel our inner Sorkin and incorporate generous listening into our own writing and into our future projects in this class?

3 thoughts to “West Wing Weekly Roundtable”

  1. This run-down of the episodes definitely helped me make better sense of them. In class, before listening to these episodes, we discussed whether generous listening is even possible in the kind of environment we live in right now, as you ask at the end of your post. I believe that to say it’s impossible would be to give up. Devoting ourselves to generous listening is simply a habit we need to actively practice, like keeping a journal. It might take a couple more minutes out of our day but the return, in terms of the benefits to our relationships and understanding, will be huge. I also see this class as a wonderful opportunity to practice. While at first glance writing might seem very response-driven, you can also look at it as observation-driven instead. Through taking the time to write, we are practicing our generous listening by reflecting and taking into account all sides of our observations and interactions. It seems that as Sorkin wrote his scripts, he was also practicing this, as is seen in the creation of a show adept at showcasing the best of opposing viewpoints. If Sorkin can do it with a 9 day deadline, we certainly can as well!

    1. Keeping a journal seems like a great way to practice generous listening! Part of practicing generous listening also includes not having a pre-determined idea of where a conversation will go. Sorkin himself said that he sometimes didn’t know where an episode would go days before it was set to shoot. He also said that he never wrote an episode with the goal of making it a stand out episode, rather such episodes seemed to come about naturally. I wonder if taking notes, or maybe even free writing daily without any predetermined track, would help us become generous listening. I personally am horrible at writing on a daily basis unless it’s for an assignment. So I’m curious, do either of you practice this habit? If so how do you feel it has benefited you?

  2. I think that generous listening can be practical in our everyday lives to an extent. Obviously, as we were saying in class we cannot listen generously all of the time in our everyday lives. I think that is impractical just because not everyone that we talk to wants to engage in this sort of talking and listening. Although I guess a part of generous listening is listening to what they are saying and being able to ask good questions and truly understand what they are saying. In that sense, when we correctly identify, for example, that this person is telling us to go away with their voice and their response, we are generously listening. We are just generously listening to the fact that they don’t want us to have to listen to them anymore.
    I think incorporating generous listening is certainly reasonable for our projects as well as the creation of any piece is rarely done in a vacuum devoid of other people. We take inspiration from others and will often include research that features others, both of which allow us to include other people in our process through generous listening. Also, in the editing process we often open up a dialogue with other people which offers us another chance to listen. In revision following these meetings we have to take the time to think about what people have said to us about our piece and decide how we want to try and incorporate that into our work. This may not be doing exactly what they might have said but figuring out how to make our vision of what we want the project to be work with what other people are saying.

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