This morning, as I am occasionally wont to do, I stopped at Kiva Han to get a breakfast burrito and a coffee before heading in to do my marketing hours for the department. I took out my earphones when ordering and then didn’t put them back in while waiting for my food or for the short walk to the Cathedral of Learning. At the corner of Forbes and Bellefield, as I was waiting for the signal to walk across the intersection and standing quite close to the curb, I heard a voice next to me say “back up, hey watch it.” I turned to my right to see an older man, about 6’1” who looked to be in his mid-50s I then turned to my left to see that a bus was approaching and beginning to turn onto Bellefield. I knew immediately what the man was referring to and while I did not step back from the curb because the bus was in the left lane and wasn’t making a tight turn, I appreciated his concern.
If I had been wearing my earphones, I either would not have heard him or I would have gone back to my isolation after acknowledging him. As it was, since we were walking in the same direction until we reached the Cathedral, I actually, of all things, talked to him. We chatted about the busses and how fast they sometimes go and the danger of the lane of 5th Ave that is one way for everyone but buses in that special bus lane and he related the fact that he’d been at a city meeting once and a number of people had suggested that the drivers slow down sometimes and drive more safely and the Port Authority representative saying that they couldn’t do that and that they had a schedule to keep.
Then we parted ways and I went up into my academic ivory tower. But as I did so, I realized something about a whole lot of young (or in my case, youngish/middle-ageish) writers are spending a considerable amount of time completely disengaged from the world and from other people and from strangers and, most importantly, from various rhythms of speech that surround us on any given day.
Let’s be honest, most of us spend most of our time with people in our general socio-economic-ethnic background. Our interactions on buses, in subways, at airports, grocery stories, etc., are some of the only times we are around people who are coming from different backgrounds, especially socio-economic. If writers engage this world and these places stuck entirely in their heads, cocooned with music or podcasts or audio books, will they encounter enough of the variety and random inflections that make up the music of individual voices that a writer needs to hear in order to write in rhythms not stuck in his/her own cadences? If writers don’t listen to the world around them in all its noisy chaos, how can they capture that chaos and transmute it into compelling characters?
This is as much a reminder to myself as to others: If you want to be a writer, you have to listen. Unplug from your media and let the music and discordance of life in. The alternative is to be stuck writing your own voice over and over again.