As a river guide, I learned to take feedback from the water itself, sensing what worked when I’d caught the right current. I also knew that I hadn’t been so effective if I slammed a rock or wall or just ended up on a slow-boat line to nowhere. I’d pay for my mistakes, either by being shunted into an eddy or slaving against the wind.
It took practice. Attention and practice and practice and attention. There was the feel of doing things right, the ease of it, but it had a certain sound, too. Things wouldn’t click, exactly, but the water hissed under my boat. Everything just went right.
When I first fancied being a writer, I lived and worked in Utah. Everything was new and different from my upbringing on the West coast. The red rock country. The space between towns. The long highways to everywhere. Anytime I stopped for a break in driving or working, I’d head to a café with my Steno pad. I’d overhear snippets of colorful conversation and write them down. This would all be dialogue someday!
I felt more or less comfortable sitting alone anywhere I went, with a cup of tea and bowl of oatmeal before me. If I wrote like mad, too, keeping my pen moving, I believed myself even more in the right place, right time.
The people in those cafés were busy, dawn risers and going-til-suppertime workers. The men wore feed store caps indoors; the women had on server’s aprons or horse-wrangling jeans and jackets. By sitting and writing, I too had my hands full. I sort of fit in. Maybe I even looked important, as I sensed they were in their worlds.
One time out west of Moab, in some little café whose exact location I don’t recall, I’d been driving my Volkswagen squareback for days–from California, probably, to a river I’d be working soon. I was doing the usual, having breakfast, looking busy with my notepad, listening, and jotting things down.
A man approached me. He was weathered to a nice tan and wearing the usual field dress and cap. “Excuse me, miss.”
I froze. This was it. If he glimpsed what I was writing, he’d see that my scribbles weren’t all that important, just things odd to my ear, like “my heck” and “oh, for cute” and “that’s all she wrote.”
I looked up, moving my hand to cover the page. “Yes?”
“You left your lights on.” He pointed to my VW.
Already I felt my cheeks going red. “Thanks.” I hurried out to turn them off and walked in again without meeting anyone’s eyes.
Not a huge deal, leaving on my lights, although I imagine that the gentleman saved me a jump (or tow, in the unlikely event that no one there had cables). My mistake was to presume that the scene was at all hostile, one in which I had to be recording to learn something.
There’s nothing wrong with listening, but it helps to actually be in the conversation. Journalist Celeste Headlee’s We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter makes the case that, at this time of such polarity among Americans, the discussions we need most are those with individuals not so like ourselves. And we need to listen. We’re not about to change the minds of a naysayer through constant talking to persuade, Headlee says, but by listening and hearing them out. Getting their feedback.
It changes the air in the room. The person feels heard. He’s also more likely to listen back, even if it happens months or years later. As my daughter Rose puts it, “If someone’s repeated something more than once, it means I’ve missed something they’ve said. I ask them to back up and help me get it.”
In an environment like the one back in Utah–a time years ago in a place that doesn’t really exist in that same way anymore–I would’ve learned a lot by not only listening to those folks, but by asking questions. Then it would really have been dialogue.
I did do that, later, when I wintered in northern Utah. Then I was part of the community, and although the people were different from me (and no doubt found me strange), we had a lot in common, too. We didn’t share a long past or the same religion or similar lifestyles, but we became friends. (And some of them inspired my first novel, Junction, Utah.)
It’s part of my practice, now, to listen with my ears open, as part of the conversation. It does take practice. As author and surgeon Atul Gawande says, “Practice is funny that way. For days and days, you make out only fragments of what to do. And then one day, you’ve got the thing whole.”
Learning from our mistakes. It means to listen–to the water, to the world, to the words.