Like many people, in the first months of Covid, I transformed my social life from meals and movies, into long walking-talks with friends. But by early 2021, I pretty much ended those excursions. Life was too messed up, and I didn’t feel like chatting.
However, that created new problems: My friends were confused and hurt, and I missed them. So I offered a suggestion: “I’d love to see you, if you’ll do all the talking.”
As it turned out, those new walking-talks were wonderful. They made me a better person -- and a better writer.
In the olden days, even as my friends were speaking, part of my brain would already be mapping out my potential response. (‘Fess up, don’t you do the same thing sometimes?)
Now, I simply – listened. With my complete attention. And I heard more. I heard the hesitations before words, and the words that were swallowed at the ends of sentences. I heard the seventh and eighth and ninth details, and the phrases that were countered by “never mind.”
Meanwhile, my friends got all the time and space they needed. An initial topic might wander into multiple side channels. One friend was worried about her father, who had dementia and lived many states away from her. She was trying to arrange to visit him, but her job suddenly got busy, so it was hard to take time off, especially since there was an annoying client who texted her at all hours.
Not talking didn’t mean ignoring my friends. When they seemed to come to a long pause, to want me to speak up, I certainly did, and I was probably able to give them a more thoughtful response than I used to do.
For my part, I didn’t miss the supposed opportunity to unload my own problems or brag about my newest success. In fact, it was a relief not to have to articulate a lot of words. I didn’t have to worry about clumsily saying the wrong thing or recounting a stupid joke that fell flat.
Although I didn’t start doing this extra-sensitive listening to improve my writing, of course it did. Inevitably, I think, I’ve gained more insight into why and how people feel about the complications of their lives, and how they express those feelings. All of that – you could call it accidental research –is helping me create deeper characters and better dialogue.
Still, I’d be a lousy friend if I did nothing but listen. Most people don’t really want to spout a permanent monologue, and they certainly don’t want to be guinea pigs for scenes in my novels.
If I never speak, I become a vacuum cleaner, sucking up other people’s vulnerabilities without revealing my own.
Yes, I’m talking with my friends again. I haven’t figured out how to be a perfect listener, friend, or conversationalist (and certainly not a writer of pitch-perfect dialogue). But I’ve learned that communication involves a combination of speaking candidly plus listening with love.
Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash