what happens in our listening rooms

As I walk through the back door of the small building, I hear the low chatter from the group down the hall, feel the familiar warmth that comes with rooms filled with food and conversation.

Tonight is our last meeting and I briefly think back to that night in February when we met for the first time – how I was nervous to come because I only knew two of the people who would be here. And both of them were men.

the listening room

Since then, we have gathered in the downstairs level of this small church, a healthy mix of both men and women – various ages and life stages. But it isn’t for Bible study and it isn’t a class.

There are no experts here.

We come as artists – that is the common ground where we meet. But we aren’t here to sell or showcase our art. Instead, we are here to enter into a safe community of people who are (as the gathering description says) “dedicated to the idea that we can’t do it alone, and that our hurts and egos and insecurities are keeping us from more perfect expression.”

This is The Listening Room, a bench for artists.

Most nights we sit in a wide circle in this basement and have conversation around pre-determined topics designed to uncover the artist behind the art. But tonight is our final meeting, and so they have pushed the long tables together to make a square in the center of the room, spread it with a disposable cloth, set out painted mason jars filled with pom pom tissue flowers.

We share a family dinner, conversation, and our art.

There are guitars and singing, autobiography and novel readings, sketches and paintings, creatures and clay. When it’s my turn, I read a few pages from the last chapter of A Million Little Ways, my book no one has read yet.

We end the night thankful, making plans to gather for a meal again now that The Listening Room is over.

Alone on my drive home, I realize I’m gripping the steering wheel and breathing more shallow than normal. I can’t stop tapping my left leg.

I feel alive and kind of terrified.

What is this? I wonder. Why was that so hard for me, to read my words in front of them? I’m supposed to be used to this kind of thing by now.

It’s true, over the past two years I’ve done a fair amount of speaking in front of people. I’ve given talks and led workshops. I have used microphones.

So why is it that reading my words in a dimly lit church basement among twenty kind artists ushers my body into trembling?

As I drive, words come to mind that offer an explanation for this feeling – they are words I read from someone quoting Brene Brown and immediately it comes to me: this isn’t fear I’m feeling.

This is vulnerability.

In this moment, I recognize the difference, take note of what this feels like.

Fear tells me to run away from connection.

Vulnerability dares me to run towards it.

It turns out the emotional line between those two experiences is fragile and thin.

This is what happens when we create rooms for listening. In these kinds of rooms, people meet on benches and share a common experience. And we stay engaged by being curious over people, the image bearers of God. But for me, in rooms like this, it’s important to share, too.

Part of listening is coming alive in the presence of others as we watch them come alive in our presence as well.

What are the listening rooms in your life? Do you have any? Do you need some?


  1. says

    When we step closer to His heart — especially with others — choosing to trust Him by our very act of stepping forward — we are challenged, oppressed, met with the glare and snare of the Enemy. Trust any way. Radically. He brought you there, this you can trust. {hugs}, sweet Emily.

  2. says

    I only have two people really who are “listening rooms” to me, who care both about me and my art; and they both serve me in different ways. One is a dear friend, she is a constant encouragement to me that my art is worth making, that my art communicates truth and also beauty. She loves but doesn’t criticize.
    The other is older sister who is a writer herself. She will edit for me, offer constructive criticism, help me to think about what I’m really saying, about the implications and the intention behind the words. She helps me to make sure that I am speaking out of truth and not just out of emotion. She helps me reach that “more perfect expression.”
    But I crave the vulnerability of people who know both me and my art, and who can tell me whether or not my art is any good, whether I ought to still pursue it, whether I am communicating truth and beauty in excellent ways or whether I ought to focus in one direction or another.

  3. says

    Okay. Tearing up now (as in tears, not paper). I think may be I should start this at my church. Details on discussion topics please? Any more hints and guidance you could give us (me)?

    • says

      You should do it!

      I wasn’t in charge of this group – just went as an attendee so I can’t really give you guidance as to what to do – but I would say if there is something you struggle with, chances are the others struggle with the same things. Come up with some themes and just go with it.

      Also, this wasn’t really a church thing. We just met at a church. Just to clarify.

  4. says

    Oh, I really enjoyed this post. And, I wish I had a group like that at my church. What a privilege to meet with *like-minded* folks. I used to meet with a group of women who wanted to be writers/speakers like me. We met once a week, and it was a lifeline for me. But then, life got busier, and I moved a little farther away – and though we still meet, it’s very infrequently. I realize that God has *seasons* for these things. But, with them I was more vulnerable than I’ve ever been, and it was such a blessing to share my heart, my thoughts and feelings, and my writing.

    I miss my *listening room*.

    For now, I am learning to be content with pouring out my all in the throne room of The King.


  5. says

    I absolutely cannot wait to read that book of yours. YES!

    Vulnerability is one of the most difficult parts of being a writer, but when we do, finally, it’s like we’re taking our first shaky steps down the middle aisle to communion.

  6. says

    I don’t know if this is art, but once a week I go to a women’s bible study at my church. When we get into our small groups, I tend to be the first one to open up personally, eager to dive into the good stuff and get older/wiser women’s advice. I’m usually exhausted afterwards, but in a great way. Every week, I share with my husband what I heard, and he is wow’d. It’s such a great place for me and I’m so very grateful for that time and place.

    • Melissa says

      Yes, those words struck me hard too, AV. “It turns out the emotional line between those two experiences is fragile and thin.” Oh how thin and fragile that line is in my heart, mind, and life. Thank you Emily and Ann, for the steady stream of blessings that flow from your pens.

  7. says

    A listening room. What a fantastic idea. I’ve always wanted a kind of Lewis-Tolkien-esque Inklings group of my very own (though considerably less deep, I’m sure). This sounds similar, with a big dose of encouragement.

  8. says

    Fear and vulnerability – ‘It turns out the emotional line between those two experiences is fragile and thin’. That went straight o the heart and I’m feeling a little breathless. Your vulnerability, here, with us, is shedding light on the path in front of me. Thank you. Thank you.

  9. Brianna M. says

    What an awesome idea! The Listening Room. I’ve been wanting a group to sit and talk about art– mine and others– and your experience has been inspirational and encouraging. Inspirational in that I could be the one to create that bench and encouraging because you took a chance by stepping out and sharing your book; I can do that too.

    Thank you for running towards connection and sharing your heart. You have helped me to have the courage to run toward it as well.

  10. says

    Oh, I love this, Emily.

    I’m so fortunate to have my local SCBWI branch (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) that meets monthly not far from my home. We meet for dinner and then “schmooze” — sometimes it’s a discussion about publishing, writing techniques, industry trends, etc. Sometimes we have guest speakers. I could have used something like this in my early, lonely years, when I was the only person I knew trying my hand at this writing thing, and I was truly stumbling around in the dark.

    Of course, SCBWI existed then. I just didn’t know of it! But the organization has been and continues to be a gift to me.

  11. Gwen says

    Rather than thinking of these 2 as opposites, I’ve often thought of them as cause/effect. Hence, vulnerability causes fear. I’ve allowed that to paralyze me at times. I like this perspective much better. It will move me along. Thank you!
    “Fear tells me to run away from connection.
    Vulnerability dares me to run towards it.
    It turns out the emotional line between those two experiences is fragile and thin.”

  12. says

    Wow. Thanks for writing this down. The difference between fear and vulnerability blew me away! I have been baffled by that before and didn’t recognize the destinction between the two. Fabulous!

  13. says

    What a wonderful blessing to have a group like that! If I were to think about it…I guess I don’t feel I have a listening room specifically for my art (whatever form it takes at the moment). I would like a place to think creative, to talk creative, to encourage creative…to dwell creative with like minds.

    How beautiful!

  14. Kirstin says

    Your next to the last sentence reminded me of one of my favorite quotes, “The glory of God is man fully alive!” (St. Ireneaus). I love that!

  15. Sarah Schulz says

    What a beautiful idea. I have too few listening rooms, myself; my favorite one is a once-a-year artist’s retreat we call Dead Poets. I’ve been able to be vulnerable there in ways I find difficult elsewhere, but it’s only once a year. Perhaps I should look into whether the participants would like to expand the concept. :)

  16. says

    Oh how I love this. I never thought about the fine line between fear and vulnerability but you’re right, there is one and sometimes I’m too overtaken to know the difference. {For me, both of them share the same symptom of a wildly beating heart} I have a feeling I’m going to be thinking about this for a while.

    I have two small and sweet listening rooms right now. One is my Wednesday morning group of women, the most real and honest group I’ve ever been part of. We’re reading The Ragamuffin Gospel and they voted me “leader” and when I said yes, it was with sweaty palms and heart all aflutter. : ) The second “room” is my blog. In the first room, I speak vulnerability with my mouth. In this second room, I write vulnerability with my words. I feel at home and alive and nervous and sweaty in both “rooms.” But maybe that’s a good sign.

  17. says

    Emily, I use microphones. But it’s the time when I pull the mic off and find myself looking into eyes of women who are sharing bits of their stories near a door, in a corner. It’s in the time of holding and praying over a woman who’s devastated but hasn’t been able to put it into words and it comes out all garbled and teary when she tries. In the time of letting the words drift off and staring side-by-side into the fire, wondering what to make of this world where beauty and utter despair so often butt up against each other. It’s in the times when my path crosses that of another God-wired woman who feels Him brewing something new and barely handled, when we start unpacking purposes and see the sparks dance and fly off the crazy-beauty of how He’s working in our hearts in profoundly similar ways. He seems to have me just walk into these Listening Rooms along the way. I’m thankful for that. If I hide and don’t step out—that’s when I miss out.

  18. says

    “Part of listening is coming alive in the presence of others as we watch them come alive in our presence as well”

    I have some rare time to sit with myself this morning. Questions have been forming in the back 40 of my mind all week about how and why I share, you’ve just turned the key on a locked gate. I love how God just shines his little flashlight on the next step. Thanks Emily!

  19. says

    Oh my. I have been coming “alive” in this space as well. God seems to be waking his daughters to walk a little bit taller with one another, eh? I’ve only been writing publicly for a little over a year and I’m still fleshing it all out but it’s right for me. What will God do? Whatever He wants…I’m there. Glad to be there with folks like you from time to time too. Blessings!

  20. Brenda says

    Someone else mentioned CS Lewis and the Inklings meetings … This does sound very similar. Perfect for the very creative types!

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