I. Listening

I learned from the age of two or three that any room in our house, at any time of day, was there to read in, or to be read to. My mother read to me. … She was an expressive reader. When she was reading “Puss in Boots,” for instance, it was impossible not to know that she distrusted all cats. -Eudora Welty

Unlike many writers, I don’t have early memories of being read to. My mother must have read to me though, because I dream in red and green.

What I remember most is being played to.

My father was a professional musician. If his saxophone was not in hand, he was parked at the piano bench. He loved to jam and had gigs most weekends. His speech was peppered with the jargon of a musician, a language that came to separate me from my friends who had fathers who weren’t musicians.

Dad talked a lot about the past – the days when he was on the road with the band and when he won “battle of the bands” in high school.

When he picked me up from school, he always had the window rolled down and a portable boom box in the passenger side seat. He would usually be listening to a recording he had made that day. His head would shake up and down, back and forth. He’d lean forward in his seat and move his ear to the boom box.

We didn’t talk too much on the drive home though he asked the questions that parents often do, “How was school? What did you do today?”  I don’t remember giving answers. This is probably because my dad, an impatient and nervous type, found some way to answer the questions himself or to turn up his music.

Like my dad, I played the piano. We both shared a love for Vince Guaraldi.

I practiced in the afternoons after school.  When I played, I received immediate applause and, for every birthday and holiday, more sheet music.

I took lessons for 12 years but no longer play regularly. Today, though I love music, I find myself more attracted to words than notes.

Like my mom, I love talk radio. Every night when I was in high school, we listened ourselves to sleep and talked ourselves awake over cheerios. When I went away to college, I stopped listening. I didn’t want the noise to disturb my new roommate. It seemed important, in those sacred moments before sleep to preserve some sort of silence – though this proved difficult in a noisy freshman dorm in the middle of Los Angeles.

Last summer I returned to college for a literary journalism class at the University of Iowa. The focus of the class was on profile writing. We read and discussed the profiles of three famous Americans:

Then, we wrote our own – of each other.

Before pairing us up our instructor armed us with interviewing skills and techniques.

“Be sure to listen,” she advised. “The worst feeling is ending an interview and realizing you’ve done all the talking.”

I, personally, had been more worried about the speaking part.

At the end of the workshop, I read the profile about me. The headline read, “Listening and being heard.” I like to think it’s true.

I can’t recall exactly what I told my interviewer, but I do remember my interview with her. I remember  her work with motherless children and her daily afternoon tea with her mother who died when she was in high school. I remember her quirky Brooklyn apartment and ski vacations with friends, her basketball victories and brother who joined a cult. Maybe I remember because I’m a good listener. But I also know I’ve consistently found the world and people that surround me far more exciting than myself.

As I prepared to leave Oakland to study at The Bread Loaf School of English this summer, I had a conversation with a friend about my writing. She asked me if I’d like to write a book one day.

I might, I told her, but I wasn’t sure what I would write about.

“I don’t know what compels writers to write,” she responded, “but they must feel like they have something
to say. Maybe one day you’ll have something to say.”

Her statement, I thought, made sense. Writers would naturally write with something to say – with purpose and a strong voice. I bet that’s how Hemingway wrote.

But the idea that an overwhelming desire to say is needed to writing something well is troubling.  Maybe it troubles me, because I know I don’t have “it.” I lack the overwhelming desire to say.

I don’t write to say. I say to write.

It’s nice to think that for some writers, saying simply happens when they’re handed a pen. I never have held my pen the right way.

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