Monday, June 24, 2013

I'm Listening

I made the commitment leap and started my own book club.  Our first meeting is this coming Thursday and the book we are discussing is: The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein.  I've never been a book club member before, so I'm not sure how it will go, but I'm excited.  This, the book club I mean, is definitely a topic for an upcoming blog, so stay tuned for that.

What I really wanted to chat about today is the topic of listening and there's a wonderful piece in Stein's book about it.  The narrator of the story is a lovely dog named Enzo.  Being a dog, he can't speak, so we're privy instead to his thoughts and observations, particularly regarding human interaction.  Enzo is convinced when he dies, his soul will leave and become human and thus with the life he is currently living, he takes note on what will make him a good human.  Which brings me to this excerpt:

"Here's why I will be a good person.  Because I listen.  I cannot speak, so I listen very well.  I never interrupt, I never deflect the course of the conversation with a comment of my own.  People, if you pay attention to them, change the direction of one another's conversations constantly.  It's like having a passenger in your car who suddenly grabs the steering wheel and turns you down a side street.  For instance, if we met at a party and I wanted to tell you a story about the time I needed to get a soccer ball in my neighbor's yard but his dog chased me and I had to jump into a swimming pool to escape, and I began telling the story, you, hearing the words "soccer" and "neighbor" in the same sentence, might interrupt and mention that your childhood neighbor was Pele, the famous soccer player, and I might be courteous and say, Didn't he play for the Cosmos of New York?  Did you grow up in New York?  And you might reply that, no, you grew up in Brazil on the streets of Tres Coracoes with Pele, and I might say, I thought you were from Tennessee, and you might say not originally, and then go on to outline your genealogy at length.  So my initial conversational gambit - that I had a funny story about being chased by my neighbor's dog - would be totally lost, and only because you had to tell me all about Pele.  Learn to listen!  I beg of you.  Pretend you are a dog like me and listen to other people rather than steal their stories."

I love this excerpt.  And I love Enzo.  What a wise creature.  He's right.  Shut up and listen.  Humans are terrible listeners.  Most of them.  But there are at least two professions where listening is a coveted tool: veterinary medicine and writing.

Vets have to be good listeners.  Every piece of information that comes out of an owner's mouth could contain some insight into what the dog ate or what changed in the horse's environment.  They may not realize it.  I may not realize it, just then.  But as words and sentences swirl together to create a story about what happened last night at the emergency room, subtle observations creep out and clues are teased from the mass.

In vet school and after graduation, still wet behind the ears, upon a patient's initial physical exam, I would be so determined to ask the right questions, and get the most helpful answers, that I found myself concentrating on what I was going to ask and I missed half of what the owner was saying.  Listening takes practice.

I feel for the most part authors are good listeners as well.  Part of constructing good fictional dialogue is understanding what real conversation sounds like, and taking out all the bad, redundant bits (and run-on sentences - man, do people talk like crazy with run-on sentences.)

So what about you?  Are you a good listener? 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Guilty or Am I the Only Soul Who Doesn't Like James Herriot???

I have a confession to make:  I do not enjoy stories by James Herriot.  As a veterinarian and writer and someone who enjoys the British countryside and is a decent, kind, caring person, I understand that this makes no sense.  He should be my idol. 

For those of you living under some sort of mega-rock for the past half century (or maybe you're just not into books about animals, I guess - I shouldn't be so harsh), James Herriot was a mid-20th century British veterinarian who wrote a series of semi-autobiographical books about being a vet in the British countryside.  His most popular book, All Creatures Great and Small, also became the name of the TV series on the BBC based on his stories. 

I feel that everyone loves James Herriot.  You are supposed to love James Herriot.  What's there not to love?  His stories are down to earth, humorous, and filled with little British-y quirks and mannerisms that make Americans squirm with delight. 

James Herriot - see? What's there not to like? And yet somehow...
And yet.... I first tried Herriot when I was in middle school, per recommendation from my mom.  I recall plucking an old, weathered paperback from the immense book shelf in our family room and settling down one evening to read all about vet adventures, adventures just like I dreamed for myself one day.... And after about thirty pages, that was it.  I was done.  I just.  Didn't.  Like.  It.

Haven't you ever started a book and you get this feeling like: eh, this doesn't feel like me.... and then sure enough, something just doesn't click and no matter what, you can't muster the gumption to finish the darn thing?  Rarely do I get that feeling, but when I do, man, it's impossible to kick and the book just languishes.  Life is way too short to waste time on books that don't "click", that's what I say. 

Given the fact that I was only a pre-teen when this occurred, I sensibly tried to give the book another shot when I was in college.  Home for summer vacation, again I picked up the same weathered paperback and tried (harder this time) to like it. 


And that's it.  No three-strikes-you're-out thing for me.  Two tries - that should be enough.  Herriot and myself were just not meant to be.  It's like how some people just can't stand Hemingway or Shakespeare. 

This topic comes up occasionally.  It's like whenever people find out I'm a vet and love to read, they automatically ask about Herriot: "oh you must love James Herriot" or "you must've read all the James Herriot books."  And the truth, as you've learned, is: nope.  Then, when I openly admit I actually don't care for these books, the reaction is normally a shocked facial expression and an uncomfortable: "Oh, really?  Oh.... well...."  It's like I admitted I kill people and eat them or something.  (Which I don't, internet.  I don't.) 

And so, to keep random conversations with clients and other animal-loving people pleasant, when asked about Herriot, I sort of mumble something about how I've never really read any of his books, and then comment on the weather or scream: THERE'S A SPIDER OVER THERE which creates the perfect diversion.

The perfect diversion for awkward conversations
Now that I've come clean, I'm wondering if there's anyone else out there who isn't a fan of the lovable James Herriot.  When I Google "James Herriot bad reviews" or "people who don't like James Herriot", I get nothing.  Not even Google admits there are people out there like me.  But, if you're reading this and find yourself nodding in agreement to my riveting text, maybe we can form a support group or something... I'm thinking some sort of social event involving cookies.... 

And now I'm done hating on books.  Because the truth is, of course, I love books.  I live for books.  And I'd much rather talk about books I love than the ones I don't.  So this is the last time you'll hear me moan and groan about a book.  Well, except for Dickens.  I can't stand Dickens.  But that's for another blog...