“Are you listening to me?”
How many times have I been asked that question? It might be a spouse, a child, a friend – even a stranger – who asks.
“Of course, I’m listening,” I reply. But I’m not always being honest.
I hate admitting it, I am not a very good listener. While you’re talking to me, you’ll have my full attention at first – but if you go on too long, I may back off. If something, or someone, enters our space and is speaking on a totally different subject, my ears may prick up and follow the sounds. The boat that is me may leave the mooring and drift out to sea, as your voice and the story you’re telling swiftly fade away.
I’m not proud of this. I want to be riveted to your every word, to all its cadences, and give you my full, concentrated attention. In classrooms I must be vigilant: it wouldn’t be polite, or fair, not to listen to my students’ voices, whether they read a story aloud, or have questions or comments. Usually, I stay in the moment; I focus. But, sometimes, the non-listener in me gets antsy and interrupts or changes the subject.
Last week my adult memoir writing students and I discussed the importance of listening. “Writers need to listen,” I found this in one of my books on craft: “Most of your characters are right inside you waiting to be fleshed out, shaped, and brought to life. But the ones who are missing are walking the streets in your neighborhood, are sitting having a cappuccino next to you at Starbuck’s, are standing in front of you in the express line at the supermarket.” (Writing from the Heart by Nancy Slonim Aronie, Hyperion, 1998)
These characters “are part of your work, your material, your ticket to someone else’s reality.” On the conscious level, we know this. Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, we continually observe people, whether eavesdropping on conversations in restaurants, on the train, boarding a ferry or airplane — and make silent notes, storing fragments of dialogue, whole sentences, memorizing how the speaker intones each word. Just listening to what is transpiring connects in our brains to a character, real or invented, or a situation, and we must borrow (or steal) this for our own purposes.
Eudora Welty, in One Writer’s Beginnings, tells us: “Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”
Of course, how we assimilate the constant din of voices and information is another matter. “There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing,” G.K. Chesterton wrote.
As for concentrating on who is speaking and what they are saying, Ernest Hemingway is known for this famous quote: “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”
What is your experience with listening? Are you present to hear? Do you listen to the other speaker without interrupting, without imposing yourself, without guiding the other person’s train of thought? I’d love to know.
My memoir, Only You, has just been released by Oak Tree Press and is available through www.amazon.com or through the publisher directly: www.oaktreebooks.com. On the east end of Long Island, Bookhampton, Canio’s, and the Romany Kramoris Gallery in Sag Harbor, will stock the book, with more venues to follow. The book launch for Only You will be held on Sunday, April 27, at 2:00 p.m. at the Kramoris Gallery (631-725-2499), with refreshments and with live rock and roll music by Jim Turner to follow the reading.