I have always been a talker. My parents said even when I was little when they would come home late from an evening out they would rush into my room outraged that I was still awake . . . only to find me sitting up in bed talking in my sleep. To no one.
I come from a family of talkers. We talk over each other thinking the louder we yell the bigger the possibility that someone will listen. But since there are no listeners in this crowd no one really hears anything.
A poet friend of mine said: “The most important trait a writer can have is listening. And you can’t listen if you’re talking.” So I began genuinely trying to be a listener consciously working at it. One night my husband and I were driving down Massachusetts avenue in Boston. I said I need you to help me with something. I need you to alert me when you see me talking at a party or a dinner or even with just one friend or with you for that matter like even if we’re at a function or a gathering and you look across and see me moving my lips and going on and on would you just give me a high sign something gentle not like screaming across the room this is a good time to try that listening thing babe just a wink or a nod something subtle so no one else knows what we’re doing. I can’t seem to do this myself. I just slide into talking because it’s so easy for me and I’m just so used to it; its like smoking, it’s a habit. I ranted on for probably 10 miles without taking a breath. And then we came to a red light. And there on my right was a Mexican restaurant with a bright neon sign that read Grande Boca (big mouth). We laughed for five minutes straight.
Many years ago when my kids were seven and nine, I was reading Armand Hammer’s authorized biography. He wrote, my mother always said this, my mother always said that, tidbits that probably shaped him into the successful entrepreneur that he became. One of the lines I loved most ßwas “live dangerously carefully.”
That night at dinner I said to my kids, “If anyone were to ask what your mother always said, what would you say?” They looked at each other as if I had spoken German, and then Dan piped up with always eat your tofu. Josh nodded in agreement. I just sat there thinking, that’s it? No wisdom? No one liners? No character building phrases. Nothing in all these years that they could come up with besides “eat your tofu?”
I thought about what sage advice my mother gave me. I loved the woman fiercely but I couldn’t come up with one thing that began with, “my mother always told me . . .” If you’re talking, you can’t listen would have been a good one. My friend Margot told me one Thanksgiving when she was first married her sister in law called her and said, this year we’re all coming to your house. And there will be 42 of us. She said I hung up the phone and totally freaked. I called my mom and whined, she’s the one with the big house, mom, I can’t possibly do this. And my mother said: “Is there any way you can get out of it?” And I said no, and she said, “Well, if you can’t get out of it then get into it.”
Wow. I thought. What a cool mother.
For the rest of the day I felt a loss. That’s it, I thought. I’m either going to say wise things or I’m going to say nothing. No more idle yapping away.
Over the years I’ve gotten better. But it’s a challenge. I still get tempted to take over and lead the conversation, tell a story, relate a teaching, pass on a proverb.
Now I have a grandchild and I am even more motivated.
I have a goal that one day when someone asks him what his grandmother always said, he will answer, “My grandmother was a wise woman; she said nothing. She simply listened.”
Nancy Slonim Aronie teaches the Chilmark Writing Workshop on Martha’s Vineyard. She won the Derek Bok Teacher of the Year award at Harvard for the three years she taught for Robert Coles. She is a commentator for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. Her book Writing From The Heart has gone into its seventh printing and will be released as an Ebook in May.