While most parents I know reject the adage that children should be seen and not heard, leadership and personality gurus tell adults to shut up and listen. For evidence, plug the title of this blog post into your favorite search engine. What’s up? Do we want people to talk when they’re young and stop it when they’re grown?
Like most generalized advice, the wisdom of listening more and speaking less varies with the direction you tend to err. Are you more apt to dominate or defer? Though I haven’t found a whit of advice to talk more and listen less, “find your voice” generates millions of hits. Some youth programs use a ground rule “step up, step back,” asking quieter participants to extend themselves and more assertive participants to give them space.
Of course, “be seen” is not the same as “listen.” Less obviously, talking is not always the equivalent of self-expression. The goal isn’t just to take turns or achieve balance, but to absorb and process what we hear and let it inform our output.
One writing instructor prohibits the student whose work is under discussion from speaking until everyone's comments are finished, sometimes an hour or more. Then there’s a chance to ask questions. This is remarkably effective at quelling the urge to retort, defend, or argue. Forbidden to talk, all the student can do is soak it up and take notes. The input starts to gel. Over time, listening and applying what I hear strengthens my artistic voice.
“The newspapers are making morning after morning the rough draft of history. Later, the historian will come, take down the old files, and transform the crude but sincere and accurate annals of editors and reporters into history, into literature.”
- “The Educational Value of ‘News’,” The State [Columbia, S.C.], Dec. 5, 1905
In writing polio eradication history as it happens, I draw heavily on what journalists write. I interview some of the same participants. To say journalists cover the present, while historians treat the past, is only partly true. Six weeks after an event, both the magazine or website journalist and I may write accurate accounts, but they will differ in focus and perspective. Beyond past versus present, the difference is also about the future. Journalists ask, what matters to readers today? Writers of current history ask, which of today’s events will readers five years from now care about, looking back?
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative began thirty years ago, in 1988. This year's World Polio Day event will be livestreamed in Philadelphia this Wednesday, Oct. 24, with a recording posted soon afterward. Journalists will watch for the latest news on efforts to end polio. As a historian, I’ll also be looking for clues to major turning points in the polio story—developments that will still stand out when we read about them long after the world is free of polio.
Back in grad school, I wrote about early modern Europe. Personalities only occasionally shone through the fragile archival materials. When they did, I had a blast. Some 17th-century Puritans were vain, some petulant, some playful, some quick to anger. I wrote them as I found them. Those pages of my dissertation were the most fun to write, and to read.
Years later, writing a short history of a local church, I encountered a new constraint. True, the sources were more abundant, the personalities easier to reconstruct. Yet writing them as I found them demanded a different quality of care. This wasn’t investigative journalism of public figures, but an honest narrative of well-meaning, imperfect individuals, likely to be read by those same people or their widows and children. I struggled for diplomatic wordings such as, “His greatest strength was not in preaching but in pastoral care.” Had the beloved pastor in question died three hundred years earlier, I’d have felt free to say all sources agreed he was a lousy preacher.
In my current history-as-it-happens writing about polio eradication, fortunately, treating personalities with respect comes easily. The players are doing important and valuable work, policy or strategy disagreements are just that, and differences in temperament or style don’t tempt me to mockery. Debate may arise about who gets credit or which events merit coverage, but that’s a subject for another post.
We’re just back from a four-day escape to Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula, our vacation home away from home. We walked our favorite walks and viewed our favorite views. The comfort of familiarity contrasts with the stimulation of last year’s visit to Greece, where everything was new to us.
Human senses tune into change, novelty, the unexpected. In Greece, grand edifices like the Temple of Poseidon grabbed my attention. Perception operates at a different level in a setting one knows well. In northern Door County, where every turn of the road is familiar, it’s the doe and fawn by the roadside who catch my eye. The particular blend of red, green, and yellow in this patch of woods, this particular week. The cormorant preening its feathers on a ledge fifteen feet from the observer. Sunbeams shooting straight up into the clouds from a purple sunset over the bay. The joy of novelty in a home away from home lies in the ever-changing details.
Personal or public life disrupts focus at times. My mind goes round and round, spinning conversations or retorts, refusing to go in a straight line long enough to produce a journal entry, let alone a blog post. Where does making art, music, or dance fit into times like these?
Processing. Words aren’t the only way to journal. One friend assembles a collage to work through grief, anger, and fear. Another dances in the kitchen.
Transforming. After National Guardsmen killed unarmed students in 1970, survivors channeled their rage into creating Devo and other independent rock bands in nearby Akron, Ohio. Click here for the Chicago Tribune’s “How the Kent State Massacre Changed Music.”
Recharging. A recent lunch conversation turned to the strain of caring for ailing relatives. One woman recalled the joy of escaping into her writing for three consecutive hours, her spirit revived by the respite for creativity.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.