“I was an only child who was often alone with adults, and, because I was in some ways a timid sort, I became practiced in the art of watching and listening.” Lee Martin
We’re kindred spirits, Lee Martin and I. An only child who loved quiet pursuits like reading and imaginary games, whose mother was always home with her, whose grandparents also lived in the house, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by loving, caring adults.
They fascinated me. When I first read Martin’s elegant little self-description, an image of myself as an eight year old popped into my head. I spent most of my time at home either in my room, or in the basement of our little ranch house, which had been “finished” complete with a full kitchen. Because the basement kitchen was larger than the one on the tiny first floor, my grandmother –the chief cook and bottle washer in our family in those days – quickly took it over, thus making the basement our family’s main living area. I had my own play area in a far corner, with my Barbie Dream House, a large stand-alone chalkboard for playing school with a menagerie of stuffed animal pupils, and fully loaded bookshelves. Tucked away in this corner, I could engage in my own solitary pursuits but still keep one ear trained to the adult conversation and activity.
This was how I learned that my uncle was struggling with alcoholism, that our neighbor was pregnant with baby number six. This was how I finally pieced together from whispered conversation that one of my cousins had been brutally attacked by a home intruder. This was where I first gleaned the tensions between my mother and father, how she resented the time he spent with his Masonic Lodge group and was resisting his efforts to join the Eastern Star (the corresponding women’s organization).
Some of this information was troubling, some of it was exciting, but all of it was interesting. Much of it appeared later on in the stories I wrote, first in my childish round handwriting, and later on my brand new electric Smith Corona typewriter.
Those early days of listening and watching heightened not only my interest in, but also my awareness and understanding of people. For a while I considered becoming a psychologist, because I’m fascinated by what makes people tick emotionally, why and how they react as they do.
My mother says I read people like a book, and that seems appropriate. Certainly reading has given me insight into human behavior and emotions. I gravitate toward character –driven books, because they feed that interest in people. My own writing explores my feelings about life in general and my own experiences in particular, because I believe that sharing our life stories helps us understand our own lives while it brings us closer together as human beings.
The art (as Lee Martin refers to it) of watching and listening is vital for a writer. It’s probably why writers historically spend time in café’s and coffee shops. Like me in my basement play area, they scribble away in their quiet corners, one ear attuned to the conversation of those around them. That time becomes a crucial part of their working process and is definitely an art worth practicing for any writer.
How about you? Where do you practice the art of listening and watching?