Monday, June 26, 2006

Do the write thing

This weekend I took it upon myself to take a Continuing Education course at the University of Utah called “The Art of Interviewing: Listening with the Third Ear”. It played right into what I do for a living – travel, interview, write, repeat – so getting work to pay for it was a no-brainer. I’d wanted to bring one of our new writers along with, but he was running (like the wind, I’m told) in a relay race for work. I braved it alone. I became the note taker. And, over two six-hour days, I was able to take eight pages of copious notes.

Among other things, I learned I should start recording interviews more often. Radio Shack makes it easy! Transcribing is a real pain in my behind, but you’re able to capture more of who they are by how they say it (imagine that). I found out ways to validate a person’s right to say something, that researching your subject does an interview good (events trigger memories, who knew?) and that wearing black allows you to be more or less invisible. You want this. It makes them forget you’re there.

As an aside, I never did learn where my third ear was. This was very disappointing.

Ultimately, the class taught me to listen better. I marveled a lot at our teacher, Eileen Hallet Stone, and not just because she was hilarious. I mean, she was the female version of Woody Allen, only less neurotic and with more black clothing. Lots of black. But it showed me how bad some of us are as listeners. It goes beyond just being on the other side of a conversation. It’s picking up nonverbal cues, it’s being willing to be taught, it’s checking your ethics at the door and reminding yourself not to judge the person telling you a story. If we want to know about the lives of, say, our grandparents or dear friends or, yes, even total strangers, it’s up to us to blaze the way towards doing so. It doesn’t strike me as the easiest thing in the world to do, but it’s entirely possible. I, for one, am all for falling on my face.

It was thrilling to watch Stone as she taught – at least for me – because she incorporated many of the things she was cluing us into as she taught. When she spoke of mirroring the interviewee (i.e. the narrator) by copying some of his/her actions, thus making them more comfortable, she was doing it herself. I took my shoes off and, within minutes, hers were off as well. I asked her about it later and she said she hadn’t even realized she was doing it. There were just five of us – a mother and her 13-year-old-son, a small business owner and an older woman – and she became comfortable with us. Mirroring came naturally. And that made all of us feel good, of course (whether it was true or not).

And speaking of listening, I couldn’t help but be crazy interested in all that went on. In the course of two days, I did not get tired. I hardly used the bathroom. I had what they refer to at work as “laser focus”. And once, when I had my head down, busily taking notes like a the madman I was determined to be, Eileen stopped me mid-sentence to inform me that I needed to get back to writing.
Real writing. That I was “intuitive” and that it wasn’t a trait easily come by or learned very easily, but more something you just were. Stopped me right in my tracks, but she picked up and moved right along, easy sleazy. We’d already established that, she being Jewish, cutting people off and finishing sentences was entirely expected (the mother-and-son pair were also Jewish and friends with Eileen). But she made me think about my lot in life.

Now, I didn’t take it personally. After all, it was mostly a compliment. I know I make my living writing about people and more or less making them sound better than they are. I will readily admit I’m a bit of a hack, but I’m still a writer. I get paid to be creative in print. I’m lucky enough to have these magazines I write all the copy for wind up in something like 130,000 homes a month. Is it a little more sanitized than I’d have it? Does an editor slice and dice my words at will now and again? Well, yes and yes. I let on that I did still write outside of work and she countered there was no pathos in the kind of stuff I did and that my writing would change over time due to the nature of the job. Eh, it might happen.

I don’t know that I ever aimed to be respected by other writers. I’m fairly certain I haven’t. That’s like having a musician who caters to the critics (and they do exist, sure). Aren’t writers loners by nature anyway? It’s not like they gather up and boo the lesser among them or anything. I’m just glad I can write, travel some and write s’more. There will be more than this someday. And the books will come. I’ll compile my tales, scattering them around for all to read. Fact, if anything, the class served as a reawakening in me; I will begin spreading my writing around like it’s free! Except it won’t be, since I'll be published for doing what I do. And screw the pathos; I’m aiming for funny.

Wonder if she meant her comment to work as reverse psychology?


ewesa said...

I love inspiring people. they make so much seem possible (it is). I think you've inspired me to take a community course in something. cool!

ZLB said...

hmmm. . .wanna loan me those notes? my thesis is a qualitative study which means lots o' interviews. right now I'm struggling to come up with the best questions.

plainoldsarah said...

i'm enrolled in the utah writing project and am really excited for similar reasons. i could especially relate to your super cool teacher, not that i have one, but just that i love having them and wish more of them were that in tune and sharp. lucky you.