We live in a culture and time of Listen to Me.
Listen, we preference our statements to family, friends, and strangers. Did you hear me? We ask when someone doesn’t do as we request. Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now? We jokingly parrot into our third ears (cell phones) and are piqued to shrieking if there’s a connection hiccup, a dim signal, a garbled word. But stop a minute. Hush yourself and think about it: if each of us is talking, how can the other ever be the listener?
I’m a storyteller. That’s my craft, my profession and my passion. Every hour of my life (wake to sleep) is dedicated to the business of stringing together words and telling a story. The odd paradox of being a writer is that it’s imperative that we be listeners first.
Seek to hear
Just this past week I was at the doctor’s office. My technician is from Poland. We’d had our introductory meeting last month when I moved to Chicago. Then, she’d asked me what I did for a living, and I told her I wrote books.
When I arrived for this second visit, she met me in the exam room, “I’m reading your book! The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico!” She took a vacation to the island this summer and was interested in learning more. While she went about her medical checklist, she said she was fascinated by the similarities between my young protagonist’s dream of “making it to America” and her own growing up.
As it happened, I was physically in a position where I couldn’t do the talking—couldn’t tell her about my mom, titis and abuelita, about my family farm in Aibonito, about the food and the music and all the wonders of Puerto Rican culture. All the stuff that I’d grown accustomed to chatting about when someone brought up the book. So instead, I turned the tables on myself. I became the listener.
“Tell me about growing up in Poland, how you came to be in Chicago,” I said.
While I lay still for the next two hours, she talked, and I lost myself in the world she described. At one point, a tear eked out my eye and she fretted, “Ah, too painful? We stop.”
I shook my head. “I’m okay. It was your father,” I mumbled.
She’d been telling me about how her father left them for two years while he went to earn money as a house painter in America. She’d been telling me her grandmothers’ stories about the Nazis and Russians during WWII. She’d been telling me about her first American movie— “Dynasty”—and how her extended family gathered to watch on a 10” antenna TV. She’d been telling me her dreams for her life when she was a child. Her dreams for her children’s lives now. I was moved to the tear, not pained to it.
When my appointment was complete, she shyly apologized, “I’m sorry I talked the whole time. I don’t know what made me tell you all that.”
I told her she’d given me a gift. She’d nursed my body and mind, and I realized, our general society doesn’t seek to hear enough. As writers, we often become so mired in our own authorial voices and the voices of our characters that we don’t stop to hear the ones around us: the people sitting beside us on the subway, the grandparents reminiscing about ‘back in the days’, the chatty Uber drivers and nurses and checkout ladies at the grocery store. There are so many people with stories to tell!
Of course we can’t listen to them all. We are only one set of ears. But what if we took it as our writerly duty to push our own pause button? To stop putting out our words and listen—really listen— to another person. Just one. Start there. Think of the opportunities.
Listen to the pros
When I was a young journalism major in college, I remember reading an interview in the Los Angeles Times with writer John Ridley (who would go on to win the Academy Award Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years A Slave in addition to his many novels, TV shows, stage plays, etc.). At the time of the interview, his novel, Everybody Smokes in Hell had just released from Knopf, his movie “Three Kings” was taking Hollywood by storm, and “Third Watch” was one of television’s most praised shows. All of these vastly different narratives came out of his imagination. I was in awe—that one person could creatively produce so much. Truthfully, I was a touch envious, too. He was a savant, an abnormality of limitless ideas. There was probably a benign tumor on his cerebellum, I decided.
Then Ridley explained his secret: “If you want to be a writer, you’ve got to be a listener first.”
Boom. It was so simple… so simple it was easy to disregard just how powerful being a listener truly is.
As I said from the start, we live in a society of Listen up, listen here, listen, listen, listen! Which, in effect, produces the opposite: our ears become numb and deaf. Other’s words cease to hold weight and meaning. We’re too busy thinking about what we’re going to say next.
There’s the old Epictetus quote: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
It took a kind Polish woman in a new city to remind me that the power of our calling is not in our own cries of Listen, listen to my words! but in actively participating in the art of hearing a story.
What if everywhere we went and every new person we met, we asked ourselves, what could they tell me if I listen? We might discover more treasures than we could ever imagine, and the world might be a little kinder, too.
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