I have been thinking lately about the importance of listening. The most important thing to do to be a good reporter, and an even better interviewer, is to listen.
I hesitated when titling this because, really, listening is key to much more than writing. I know people who drove me insane because they do not know how to listen. Next time you are having a conversation try to talk less and listen more. You may be amazed by what you hear – habits of theirs that you never noticed before or them sharing a story you have not heard before because this time you are not the one steering the conversation Try to move out of the driver’s seat of the conversation and into the passenger’s seat and just listen for a while.
This also holds true as a writer. You want to absorb everything around you and that is hard to do if you are talking all the time. Instead, just listen.
I recently wrote about Annie Dillard and how I loved her as a writer but was frustrated by her as a reader. She is good because she knows how to listen. More precisely, she witnesses well by which I mean she observes, she contemplated and she relates what she sees. As a writer that is incredibly important. Writers and reporters are not, contrary to what Judith Miller of the New York Times famous implied, stenographers. They listen and pass on what they have heard but they must also think.
But sometimes listening can backfire and that is when the person you are listening to doesn’t talk in a straight rational line. Sure they may understand how they went from point a to point b but if you, the listener, can’t understand how the conversation just jumped from terrorism to why you prefer tea over coffee then there is the potential for both the speaker and the listener to become frustrating.
Dillard had that effect on me, she would switch topics and I’d be left wanting to interject a question, just as I do when talking to someone who is jumping topics. But I can’t ask Dillard to explain things and so I’ll be frustrated.
So how does this help you as a writer? Let me provide an example. Let’s say you are covering a fire at night. These days there is often only one person authorized to speak to the media and if you are a journalist on a deadline you are stuck with a common dilemma – the editor wants the story as soon as possible but you can’t write anything yet because you don’t have anything official.