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Being a Professional Listener

I want to say a few words about why I became a writer. When I was young the form of speech we now refer to as narrative had a different name. It was called lying, and I was good at … Read More

By / September 17, 2009


I want to say a few words about why I became a writer.

When I was young the form of speech we now refer to as narrative had a different name. It was called lying, and I was good at it. In the beginning, I was not good at making people believe in my lies. But I was definitely, from an early age, well established in my predilection for telling stories. Perhaps I felt that on the whole life was better served by exaggeration than by accurate description. Or perhaps I simply had a good imagination and enjoyed exercising it. All would have been well, I suppose, if I’d said that I was making up a story about what happened at nursery school or on the bus. But I kept insisting that things were as I said they were, and not as other people held them to be. I think I could tell the difference, I’m pretty sure I could. But I was offended on behalf of my stories when people gave preference to reality. From a child’s point of view (which I still hold) what is so much better about the way things ‘really’ are?

It was an important day when my mother gave me an illustrated book by Dr. Seuss. And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street was the story of a little boy whose imagination brought him to ever more florid and enthusiastic descriptions of what he saw when walking down Mulberry Street. To me as a child the story seemed to say: ‘well, of course, we know that these things could not have been seen on Mulberry Street, but does it matter? Look at the beautiful illustrated tales we’ve been able to come up with. We’ve even been able to write a book about them. Isn’t that better than plain old ordinary Mulberry Street?’ I was surprised that my mother seemed to endorse this point of view and I was heartened by it. Somewhere, deep in her heart, beneath the constant criticism of my tendency to tell lies, there had to be another sort of understanding.

Like many post-modern people, I have a serious doubt that such a thing as Truth exists; like William James, I’m not sure how we’d recognize it if we came across it. Does truth come dressed in a uniform, or wearing a badge, or naked where other possibilities are clothed? Stories, when they are not considered lies, are perhaps as close as we can come to the elusive nature of ourselves which other forms of self-accounting (analysis, introspection, interpretation etc.) cannot reach. Just as, in a play, every character is speaking for the playwright; just as, in a romance, a child that never grew up is spinning its fantasies: so too, lost, neglected, forgotten, betrayed bits of the self get resurrected in our stories. Sometimes abandoned shapes of us get to consider what might have been had they been chosen. What if, after all, she had decided to remain on a Kibbutz? What if, after all, she hadn’t returned to America after her child was born? Over the years I’ve wondered if it is the sheer telling of a story, the activity of dredging up and putting the pieces together that serves a vivid purpose in reconciling ourselves to ourselves and to our ever-living past. A story organizes, gives form, draws out connecting threads, discovers or imposes meaning. It also reveals truths (note the small ‘t’) some of which hide from the surface of the story but peep through nonetheless in the telling.

I find it interesting, when I listen, as a professional listener, with open-ended fascination to a person’s narrative, how flexibly it changes and develops. People stop being afraid of self-contradiction, of the natural tendency for the story to change as details are remembered or dropped or the perspective shifts.

David Grossman, the Israeli novelist, writes wonderfully about the need to tell a story.

"The instinct of telling a story is such a primal urge. We have this need to re-organize our experience, our memory, to make order from the chaos. I remember how comforting it was for me as a child to tell or listen to stories. Every time I start a book, I think about it. There is always this moment when suddenly I start to fantasize, and the story becomes more concrete. Until then it’s very vague-you know, fragments. But then I have this spiritual feeling of being a child again; and being in this place, telling this story, suddenly makes all of this possible for me. And when I say "this" I mean all the complications of being a human being. I do not understand the world around me. I don’t understand why people act the way they do, why people act against themselves, why people are so subjugated to the things that destroy them, why people are so loyal to the things that subjugate them, why people are doomed to make themselves fail exactly at the point where they desperately need to be salvaged. It repeats itself time and again in the lives of individuals and in the lives of peoples-our people, as well. Telling a story creates for me the place where I really understand things, or think I do." (The Nation, 7/11/2005)

I love the emphasis on understanding as opposed to truth, the recognition that stories carry us to understanding, whether or not they serve up an accurate reflection of events. Sometimes when I am writing fiction I feel that I am making things up precisely in order to tell the truth, which needs this seemingly fictional form if it is to emerge. I love the ambiguity of all this; I try to bring it into my professional listening in the form of encouragement and permission. Most people apologize when they repeat themselves. They are embarrassed if they’ve already told a story before. I encourage them to tell it again, as often as they need to, because it is the telling that matters, not the information they might wish to impart. If there is need to tell a story again, in that particular moment, the need must be respected. Something in that moment wants and needs this story, no matter how many times it has been told before. And here, speaking as a writer I can only say: how else will a story get a chance to revise itself if it is not repeated?

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