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? 

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