If You Want to be a Writer You Need to Listen

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.

Sometimes you just don’t see until you look

I took this photograph while at my grandparent’s house the day after Christmas:

365-171_Window at Grandparent's House

I didn’t really think much about it. Was just snapping some photos and I have a thing for windows. But today when I say down to post my Project 365 photos, I really fell in love with the composition of the picture. Somehow the balance of the shapes just really makes me happy and I get just the barest sense of melancholy that, like a hint of chili powder in your brownies, makes the sweet all the better.

I thought to myself that if I hadn’t needed to find a picture for my project, if I hadn’t gotten into the habit of taking pictures on a daily basis, if I hadn’t been aesthetically unhappy with some of my other photos of the day . . . I wouldn’t have actually taken the time to look; to actually look enough to see.

Even with taking pictures on a daily basis since July, I still often forget to look enough to see, to listen enough to hear, to eat with enough deliberation to really taste. Maybe this picture will help remind me when I forget to pay sufficient attention to the here, the now, and the joys that are all around me.

Knowing when to shut up

I love to engage in debate and argumentation. When done in good faith, I don’t mind debating people who might believe in all sorts of things that I think are wrong or silly or dangerously stupid. The good faith bit is important to me and I always try to hold myself to the rhetorical standard that I hold others. Sometimes I fail and yes, Bush and Palin can bring out all sorts of ad hominem attacks from me, and often my logic can be clouded by empathy when faced with real world pain or a sometimes self-righteous passion for justice when faced with so much suffering and violence and injustice in the world.

I tend to be good with words and logic and ideas so even when I don’t have a lot of factual basis for my arguments, I can often mount a pretty damn convincing argument for my point of view. Because of this, I will often argue a point without a strong basis in facts or information.

I’m going to try to know when to shut up.

My new rule for myself (and one I’m sure I’ll break over time, but the value is in the effort and over time effort will become practice will become habit) is this: stop pretending I know things I don’t know.

Seems simple doesn’t it? The hard part is distinguishing between what I believe and what I know. The truth of the matter is I, along with most everyone, don’t know very much. I do know that. Of course I get through the day based on any number of facts, but most of what I use to understand the world is based on inferences and belief. I have no evidence that most people are decent, but I tend to move through the world with that assumption. I, personally, have no evidence that Cheney isn’t right and that torture is a find and dandy thing to help protect this country. I believe he is wrong in this, just as I believe that flu vaccinations are a good thing. In order for me to enter a meaningful conversations about these and so many other topics, I have to first admit that my argument is based on a belief that is based on logic, or research, or my trust in the experience and knowledge of specific other people. I then need to shut up and really listen to the other persons argument.

And by listen, I don’t mean wait for them to stop talking to I can make my next point, I mean, listen to their argument and their facts. I mean, take the time to understand their logic (or lack thereof), to try to separate belief from evidence. Then ask them questions, try to get them to clarify their logic or explain the veracity of their sources.

I am not suggesting that you can’t defend your beliefs or have a meaningful conversation about topics even when you don’t have research or direct experience at your disposal. I am suggesting that we would all be better off if we started by acknowledging the terms and limits of our knowledge and recognizing the difference between evidence, inference, logic, facts, and belief.

Future Transcendental or Future Fabulous?

I watched this while eating breakfast this morning:

Go watch it, it’s short.

You’re back? Ok. Two main thoughts.

  1. While Philip Zimbardo claims that a Future Transcendentalist is focused on life after death, I think there is a sub-category of this type that doesn’t think about life after death, but about achieving some kind of stardom, some level of fame. This is the frame of reference that makes you fantasize about all the trappings of success without actually making real goals or attempting actual work. This is thinking about what it will be like at your book signing when you don’t put in the work as a writer, or your movie opening when you don’t put in the work as an actor. There is a kind of death involved, but it is not a physical death, rather a death of the normal, a slaying of the mundane that then sets a person free to be loved and adored by millions and able to live a life free of encumbrances and worry.1 Instead of Future Transcendentalist, this might be called “Future Fabulous.”

  2. This year, I’ve been trying to shift my time perspective (without framing it this way until this morning) to a better balance between Present Hedonism (getting away from my tendency toward Present Fatalism) and Future Life-Goal Oriented (getting away from my tendency toward Future Fabulous). My successes have been varied. However, I think the writing goals that I am setting, my dedication to a regular and sustained workout of push-ups and sit-ups, putting more effort into controlling my food portions and eating a more balance, healthy diet, and my reflections on long term goals and the decision to return to school and get my Ph.D. indicate a growing ability to shift my perspective toward Future Life-Goal setting.

    I’ve had less success, I think, in getting away from my mental habit of seeing things through a Present Fatalism perspective. But I am conscious of this and will continue to try to think differently about how much agency I have over my life at any given moment.

What do you think? Does Zimbardo’s talk strike a chord with you? Are you able to shift perspectives with alacrity or are you normally stuck in one way of seeing time?

  1. Granted, this is not in any way an actual representation of celebrity life, but I think most of us can’t quite rid ourselves of the idea that to be a Johnny Depp or an Angelina Jolie bestows a higher level of existence. []