(Updated from May 1, 2018, blog post “Mistakes.”)

River guides learn to take feedback from the water itself, sensing when we’ve caught the right current. If we’ve slammed a boulder or rock wall or have ended up on a slow-boat current to nowhere, we’ve just earned a little feedback. We can learn from it or continue being shunted into eddies and dead zones or slaving against the wind.

It takes practice. Attention and practice and practice and attention. There is the feel of doing things right, the ease of it, but it has a certain sound, too. Things might not click, exactly, but the water hisses under the boat. Everything goes just right.

When I first fancied being a writer–decades ago–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 through places named for rivers and canyons and valleys. Anytime I stopped for a break in driving or working, I’d head to a café with my Steno notebook. I’d overhear snippets of colorful conversation and write them down. I was certain it would all be dialogue in an imagined novel someday.

Anywhere I went I felt more or less comfortable sitting alone, with a cup of tea and bowl of oatmeal before me. If I wrote like mad, too, keeping my pen moving, I believed I’d followed a sort of flow to 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 also important in their worlds.

One time out west of Moab, in a little café whose exact location I don’t recall, I’d been driving my VW squareback for days–from California, probably, to a river I’d be working soon. I was having breakfast, the usual tea and oatmeal, and looking busy with my notepad, listening, and jotting things down.

A man approached me. He was weathered to a nice tan and wearing farm 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 the gentleman had just saved me a jump (or tow, in the unlikelier-than-heck event no one there had cables). My mistake was to presume the scene was at all hostile, one in which I had to be recording to learn something.

There’s nothing wrong with listening–it’s one way to learn–but to really get feedback one should actually be in the conversation. Journalist Celeste Headlee’s We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter makes the case that, at times of great polarity (as this time is, among Americans), the discussions we need most are those with individuals unlike ourselves. And we need to listen. We’re not about to change the minds of a naysayer through constant talking, Headlee says, but by listening and hearing them out. Getting their feedback.

Conversation 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–decades ago in a world we don’t really inhabit anymore–I would’ve learned a lot by not only listening to those folks, but by asking questions. And listening to answers. Then it really would have been dialogue. Imagine that making its way into a novel someday.

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 that place and those people inspired my first novel, Junction, Utah.)

Like anything, taking feedback takes 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. Taking feedback. It means listening––to the water, to the world, to the words.

Find my recent book of essays, 2020 Nautilus Book Award Winner and 2019 Oregon Book Award Finalist The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West (Torrey House Press, 2019), at your local bookseller, Indie Bound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

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