Monday, October 26, 2015

Listening and Conversing

My wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, has an interesting insight on the relation of reading and listening.  As an inveterate reader of fiction from early childhood, then an English major, she found when, as an adult, she worked as a counselor, that the skill she had acquired over the years in paying close attention to the flow of a narrative helped her greatly as she listened to clients and their stories.

In reading fiction, we put our own "issues" aside for a while and let ourselves be absorbed in discerning the motivation of the characters we encounter: we lose ourselves, as it were, as we pay attention--the key point here--to what the characters say and do and to why they do it.  So reading novels becomes not only an exercise in interiority but an essential skill in dealing with people.

So often, it seems to me, people meet and fail to connect at a deeper level. I notice this quite often with most of the people I know: we meet at a restaurant, and  although they might show perfunctory interest in what I am doing, their focus in on themselves; and when I do talk about my life or activities, they fail to pay close attention; they seem distracted, unaccustomed to following the short narrative I am unfolding, perhaps because they are mainly concerned with their own ideas.

As a result, the encounter is superficial, and I come away unappreciated. I know several people who, after more than twenty years of seeing me, never really get to know me because they fail to pay attention. They don't know how to listen as well as talk, how to ask questions to further the conversation.

In fact, there is often no conversation or mutual exchange at all, merely an exchange of information, which can be pleasant but forgettable. We have not nourished each other.

It seems from my observations of the British royal family (and other such celebrities) that they have mastered the art of the polite question, putting people at ease with a series of questions while providing no answers of their own. The result is not a real conversation, but the technique of asking questions of the other is a skill seldom practiced, in my experience, when people get together.

If reading fiction provides essential background to following someone's story during a conversation, then it seems to me that asking a few questions is not a matter of politeness but a basic part of what it is to converse.

The limits of conversation is the subject of several books I have looked at, most recently Sherry Turkle's "Reclaiming Conversation."  She provides abundant examples of people in our technological age who have "sacrificed conversation for mere connection."  Her key question is: Does our passion for smart phones and other technology help us avoid genuine encounter?   The answer seems self-evident.

Turkle makes the point that to grow and love and understand oneself and the world around us, we must converse, not merely send Tweets.  She says that many college students she has met yearn for their friends to put down their cell phones long enough to really talk.  They have learned in school to avoid seeing faculty during their office hours--too personal and embarrassing--in favor of email relationships, which are not real relationships at all.

The result of growing up without genuine conversation is a lack of empathy, the very thing that Lynn, a fine counselor and teacher, has mastered.  No doubt she has spoiled me because most of the other people I talk to give monologues, as if unaware of that dialogue requires attentive listening.

The harmful effects of over-reliance on gadgets rather than face-to-face encounters are chilling to contemplate.  Tweets and emails provide rewards, Turkle says, in their little bursts of information; and they more we feel such rewards, the more we tend to crave more such instant stimulation.

I don't see Turkle, or for that matter, Stephen Miller, whose book on conversation I wrote about here in 2013, defining the art of conversation in any real sense or relating it to listening, the kind of listening that requires patience and some humility as well as the experience of giving attention, a form of love, to another person.  

To listen well takes maturity, skill, and the polite attention we need to follow another's unfolding narrative, with the reward being that we, too, will be listened to in the same way.  This kind of personal exchange is becoming rarer in our speeded up world, where connections are more important to many people that genuine friendships and where conversations are rare. No wonder there is so much unhappiness.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A first novel

After many years of presenting myself strictly as a non-fiction writer, I had a breakthrough four years ago, completing and publishing two short stories.  Two other stories followed, so far unpublished.  I had been (without knowing it) in the creative closet, with a long-held secret desire to write fiction. I was now "out."

And so I tentatively began a novel, which over two summers and two winters of revision, finally emerged this year, all 53,000 words of it.  Rather than wait years for some publisher to accept it, I decided to follow my wife Lynn's lead and publish it on Kindle.

Thus this week, on my birthday, after much revising and editing, I finally published Friends and Brothers, an elegiac novel of friendship and loss. It deals with two men who meet in high school, get acquainted in college, then stay close as their careers diverge in New York City. There are issues of betrayal, grief, and faith involved in this essentially simple story that some would label as "bromance."

A novel-long structure seemed right because the story takes place over 40 years, from the Sixties to the end of the 20th century, allowing me to indulge a bit of fantasy and have the main characters meet various NYC celebrities, including George Plimpton and members of the Kennedy family, real people who make an appearance in this fictional narrative.

I found myself half-unconsciously imitating Waugh's Brideshead Revisited in structure, with a first-person narrator looking back at his greatest friendship. I was also greatly influenced by other stories of male friendship and from having taught a course on masculinity and literature.  One of the topics in that course was the challenge of male friendship since most straight men tend to find their closest emotional connections with women; yet all men yearn for, yet often don't find, real friendship, caring and support with another man.

I learned many things about my own life in writing this novel. In terms of craft, I found, first of all, that if I worked for at least an hour a day for six months, I could compete a first draft of something much longer than a novella or short story, following my rough outline and keeping the plot simple.

The second lesson is that it is good, maybe essential, to put the draft away for a few months, as I did this spring, then return to it with fresh eyes. And I kept learning the hard lesson of "suggestion, not statement": showing, not telling.  As a teacher and non-fiction writer, I chiefly explain; in fiction, I must hint, using dialogue to suggest a mood and letting the reader complete the meaning. 

This became the focus of my revision just as eliminating wordiness and repetition became the focus on my editing. Even if no one reads Friends and Brothers (available on Amazon's Kindle), I have satisfied my long-held wish to do what seemed to me impossible: write, complete, and publish a novel.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Pioneers in Tibet

Alexandra David-Neel and Ippolito Desideri are names unfamiliar to most people, including me until the past week when, by coincidence, I encountered them both.

Both were intrepid adventurers who overcame fear and the hardships of early modern travel to reach the roof of the world, Tibet.

Desideri caught my interest at first because he was a Jesuit, and I have long been interested in the amazing feats of the these men, mainly in science, in the 17th and 18th century.  An Italian missionary, Desideri (d. 1733) was the first Westerner to master the study of Tibetan language and culture.  He lived in Tibet from 1715 to 1722 and was the first Christian to master the language of Tibet well enough to explore Buddhist thought and debate fine points of theology with Tibetan monks.  He wrote five works in literary Tibetan providing the first accurate account of Tibetan geography, government, agriculture, and religion.

Robert Trent Pomplun, himself a contemporary Catholic theologian and Tibetan scholar, has written a book, Jesuit on the Roof of the World (2010) and is now translating the works of Desideri, considered the father of Tibetan studies in the West.

Alexandra David-Neel was a French-Belgian feminist, anarchist, explorer, scholar of Buddhism, and opera singer (she performed in Hanoi in 1896). 

She wrote 30 books based on her extensive travels to Asia, including her 1924 visit to Lhasa when it was considered the Forbidden City.  Leaving her husband back in France, she traveled disguised as a beggar. I wonder if she knew of Desideri's works, long buried in the Jesuit archives in Rome.

Just after her 101st birthday in 1969, she renewed her passport. How can you not love that? How can anyone not be amazed at the will power, stamina, courage, and intelligence of these two pioneers--and at the potential we all have?

Sunday, October 4, 2015

An ethic of solidarity

The feast of St. Francis of Assisi today, and the aftermath of the recent visit of Pope Francis to the U.S., offers an opportunity to reflect on what it means to shift the religious and moral focus from issues to people.  This has been the major achievement of Pope Francis, in my view, and was clear in his many comments lately and in the start of the Synod in Rome.

Blaise Cupich, whom Francis hand-picked to become Archbishop of Chicago, recently wrote an important and eloquent piece on how members of a community who disagree on some matters can still lived in harmony.  He calls it the ethic of solidarity, not wanting to limit the "life issue" to the unborn but also to the unemployed, the undocumented, the unwanted, to all who are marginalized in society.

So the many non-believers who applaud much of what the pope says and were moved by his visit are not excluded from sharing common values with believers (Christians especially).  If someone disagrees with us on one issue, it does not mean, writes Robert Sean Winters, that we cannot find common ground with them on many other issues.

This is in keeping with the spirit of the recent papal encyclical Laudato Si with its emphasis on a person-centered economy. It was the reason so many non-Catholics told me how much they approved of this pope.  It is a refreshing contrast to the Us vs. Them approach of those in the culture wars, and it will take many years, perhaps a generation or more, for the Catholic Church to assimilate what could, and should, have been enacted following the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago.

But then being inclusive and finding common ground require hard work. It is always easier to rely on proclamations of exclusion and condemnation.