I’m not a stranger to listening; in fact I really enjoy a good old bit of eavesdropping. With my fiction writer’s hat on I like to think of listening as research, it’s amazing where your imagination can go with even the smallest overheard snippet. Recently, it seems that the world has been conspiring to remind me of the simple joy of listening, as I experienced it in several different ways in the space of a week.
I’m involved in developing a reading aloud group in Falmouth, with the charity Arts for Health, for people experiencing memory loss and as part of the research for this I attended a dementia awareness session and also went along to a memory café to share some reading. At the dementia awareness session we were taken through a diagram of how the different parts of the brain, and therefore a person’s character, can be affected by dementia. As well as people who were there in a professional capacity like me, there were also people who were involved in caring for relatives experiencing dementia. They talked about listening to the way their loved ones spoke in order to determine which side of their ‘character’ they were dealing with at any given time. The person leading the session also gave advice on how to listen carefully to what the person with dementia was actually saying, instead of assuming what they were saying or finishing their sentences according to what they usually said. It made me realise how hard it must be to truly listen to what someone is saying if they tend to repeat themselves, and it helped me understand the importance of social interaction for dementia sufferers, outside of their usual family or care group – providing fresh ears for old stories.
At the memory café, where people with memory loss and their carers go to socialise, I enjoyed getting to know a little about the people there, through listening to their war memories – the theme for the afternoon. One gentleman had no less than four lucky escapes from death while serving in the Navy and a very quietly spoken lady told me how she’d met her husband during the war when he came up the stairs on the bus she was travelling on and she’d hoped this handsome man dressed in an officer’s uniform would sit next to her. After having been to the awareness session earlier in the week, I was certain members of their families must have heard these stories many times before, but they were new to me and therefore, I hope, telling them to a new listener offered the tellers a new experience, too. When I read out some poems and short stories related to the theme to the group, it was wonderful to see how attentively they listened. And even more wonderful when they were inspired by the readings to share further stories with each other.
Listening in a slightly different context, but just as enjoyable, happens at the bi-monthly Telltales evening, when writers from around Cornwall read out their own work for the entertainment of a roomful of eager listeners. The variety of stories that come out at every Telltales is always surprising and the experience of hearing the writers read them out is completely different to reading words on the page. Not only do I enjoy hearing the stories for their own sake, but I also find it helps me think about the pace and rhythm and content of the stories I write. If you get the chance to listen to ‘live literature’ like this, I’d recommend it.
By coincidence, in the midst of all this local listening I also heard about the launch of a national project to capture conversations – The Listening Project – a collaboration between BBC Radio and the British Library. They’re asking people to record and share intimate conversations between them and a close friend or relative to ‘build a unique picture of our lives today.’ A selection of the recordings will be broadcast and some will be archived by the British Library preserving them for future generations – and for writers who like to eavesdrop!
Now I’ve been reminded to listen – to hear what people are really saying, to get to know someone and to be inspired – I’ll be keeping an ear out even more intently than I was before.