“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.


  1. Maria Ruiz says:

    Eileen sums up the importance of listening so well. Without that skill, our characters would be flat and unbelievable.

  2. Ben Antinori says:

    Today, speed and volume have trumped content. What you’ve given here is an antidote: attention. I “hear you saying” that to become a better writer I need to listen for those peculiar, easily missed, curiosity inducing voices and sounds. Thanks for showing me how to “pay attention” and develop my “mind’s ear.”

    • Eileen Obser says:

      I’m always trying to be better at listening, Ben, as I wrote in the blog.. It’s not easy and — you’re right: “speed and volume have trumped content.” Great sentence.

  3. Dac says:

    I have a “Frank and Ernest” cartoon on my fridge. “He doesn’t need a hearing aid. He needs a listening aid.”

  4. Nancy LiPetri says:

    So true! I’ve been working on listening “between the lines” too, tuning into what makes people say what they do, how they do. Body language. Eye signals. Did they just have a spat with a spouse? Do they believe they’re better than the other person? We can never get too good at this, I agree.

    • Eileen Obser says:

      Thanks for replying, Nancy. We may not tune in on exactly what the issue is, after listening in to a person or two in a scene, how we interpret it is so important, I feel. Can we put it to good use?

  5. JL Greger says:

    What a wise blog. The sections of my books I like best are the parts where I’m retelling a story I heard and saw unfold. I too wish I was a better listener; I’m, trying.
    JL Greger, author of medical thrillers – Ignore the Pain, Coming Flu & Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight

    • Eileen Obser says:

      We’re all trying, hopefully, and we shouldn’t stop. I’ll probably never learn to totally listen but, like you, I keep trying. Thanks for commenting.

  6. Peter Dermody says:

    I’m a good listener when I need to be. But when I don’t need to be, I’m long gone, baby. The price I pay for this wandering freedom is that, on occasion, someone asks, “do you agree with me?” And then I’m a dead man.

    • Eileen Obser says:

      Remind me not to engage you in conversations too often, Peter. If I do, however, I will certainly ask if you agree with me.

  7. So true. Listening is something we writers need to cultivate. It’s often how we come to our stories and characters. I agree with you, Eileen: when people go on and on, either speaking or writing, my interest wanes. These days I appreciate brevity.

    • Eileen Obser says:

      In the words of Bernard M. Baruch: “Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.” Amen.

  8. Yes, an important lesson for all of us. Have you ever noticed, the people who can’t retell a joke are the ones who have trouble listening to other people?

    • Eileen Obser says:

      I haven’t noticed it yet, John, but I’ll be paying attention. Another lesson to be learned. Thanks for this.

  9. Marja McGraw says:

    I grew up listening to stories told by people in my family. As I got older I worked on our family history and not only listened, but asked questions. I even recorded some conversations with my grandmother, so I can still listen to her squeaky, cute little voice. So much would have been lost if it weren’t for listening. Excellent post, Eileen. Thank you for the reminder.

    • Eileen Obser says:

      I read your blogs, Marja, and I know you must be a great listener. It’s all there in your writing — the blog posts and in your novels. It’s a gift, and all writers should have it.
      Great to hear from you.

  10. matthew says:

    I agree, we can all become better at a simple task.
    . A world full of noises surrounds us, yet we find ourselves feeling alone, are you listneing?

    • Eileen Obser says:

      Yes, “a world full of noise” does surround us, Matt, and I love your observation about finding ourselves alone. Thanks!

  11. matthew says:

    i was not watching my spelling before i hit enter,,, but i heard you…
    a smile to all ..,

  12. Mary Vettel says:

    Ah, if only more people were dedicated listeners. The world would be a better place. Good piece, Eileen.

  13. Ed Hannibal says:

    Listening is a developed social skill vital to happy relationships and good grades in class. However, for any writer intending to write credible conversations (aka dialogue), it’s Eavesdropping that pays off best, not only for content and meaning, but for dialect, pausing, the seeming nonsequiturs that are portals to how a person really thinks vs how she speaks. (as we best teach children when we don’t know they’re listening, we best pick up real dialogue when the speakers don’t know we’re are.
    Spy. Take notes. Wear a wire. Fiction isn’t pretty.

    • Eileen Obser says:

      Great comments, Ed. Don’t we automatically spy — and take notes? Wear a wire! Ah, now that’s something I haven’t done. Non-fiction ain’t pretty neither, as you and I both know.

  14. Jerry Giammatteo says:

    I’m a lousy listener. My wife always tells me that and she is right. No denial. I agree with you. The longer someone talks, the more my mind drifts. Not proud of it, but there it is. Being in your class for three sessions, I always considered you a good listener, Eileen, with your students.

    • Eileen Obser says:

      Women are known for saying that to men: “You never listen to me!” and men, when prompted, might reply, “You talk too much!” Thanks for listening in the classroom — and for not noticing when I’m not really there.

  15. pat shevlin says:

    I must admit that I work hard at being present in any interaction with another. I’m told that one of my best traits is paying attention in conversation. I find myself challenged when groups gather and everyone speaks. I remember a dinner of five friends catching up. I came away with no real interaction with anyone. It was simply dinner without catching up! Listen up: I was very happy to be back in class. I hope you heard me. See you Sunday!

    • Eileen Obser says:

      I’m glad for this comment, Pat, and happy that you’re feeling better. Yes, hope to see you at the book launch on Sunday afternoon.

  16. janet berg says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed OBSERving and LISTENING to Eileen Obser speak to students today at the Suffolk Community College Annual Creative Writing Festival where she gave a well-rounded presentation including a mini-lesson on writing memoir, personal experiences, and humor. Way to go, role-model!

    • Eileen Obser says:

      Janet, I think you and I are each other’s biggest fans. Aren’t we lucky! You listen to me, and I listen to you. How great is that? Soon it will be your turn to read to groups, and lecture. I’ll be there in the audience, clapping and LISTENING!

  17. Hi Eileen,

    I wrote a little poem because of two friend’s inability to listen … Yes! Listening is important to relationships and to writing.

    Please look into my eyes
    listen to me
    be here with me
    not off on a future errand or endeavour
    for this moment is now
    and will never happen again

    • Eileen Obser says:

      I love this poem, Wanda. I know several people — more, actually — I will share this with. Thanks for your input and your friendship.

  18. Joseph Bonelli says:

    I wrote a piece about the fact that I taught music, which really is teaching listening.
    We had success in getting middle school students to listen and be able to discuss and write what about they heard. I left out the part about students hearing something that wasn’t part of a lesson, and remembering that forever! Joe B

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