Several years ago, I realized I needed to hone my listening skills. I was enrolled in a high-residency full-time MFA program, working full time at a demanding job, and commuting about 100 miles to work and back. My teachers warned me that working full-time while pursuing my MFA would be difficult if not impossible. “You are juggling too many balls,” I was told. “They are all going to come crashing down.” To me, it didn’t seem impossible at all. I had accomplished my BA while raising three children by myself and working at least half-time. I was good at juggling; even though an occasional ball would drop now and then, I always got the rhythm going again. Quitting my job wasn’t an option, and I was determined to complete the thing I had journeyed from Washington State to New York to do: finish my BA in writing and complete my MFA.
My time was limited. The reading lists were long, and my writing assignments filled every spare moment I had. In order to complete the assigned readings, I had to be creative and utilize every minute. I discovered audio books, and I started listening to the audio version of any books on my reading lists I could find. I was sure to have the printed books also, but if I could find the audio version, I listened. During my commute, I listened. Any time I was in the car, I listened. I listened early in the mornings and late into the evenings when everyone was asleep.
The first book I listened to was Moby Dick by Herman Melville. What a challenge it was to have twenty-four hours of intense, dense listening ahead of me! I would be driving along and suddenly realize I had missed an entire section – pages of reading. My unfocused mind wandered, and I daydreamed. I couldn’t navigate my way back to the place where I had stopped listening, especially while driving. I usually didn’t even know at what point I had drifted off. I couldn’t push the ‘rewind’ button because there wasn’t one. Starting from the beginning was not an option because I had no time. I had to learn to listen. I had to keep my mind from straying. It took practice and discipline, but I have learned to love this form of ‘reading.’ Now, almost every book I buy is in audio form. Sometimes I also buy the printed or Kindle version, but I continue to listen. My favorite way to experience a book is to listen. My mind still wanders, and I find myself daydreaming, but I have become more attentive and am quicker to notice my mental wanderings. I don’t miss as much. I am able to reel my attention back and focus.
Listening to books has helped me to be more attentive to the world around me. I pay closer attention to the things I hear. I am an eavesdropper. When I walk into a store or go to a flea market or take a walk down a busy street, I listen for interesting sound-bytes. I love listening to the things people say. I have a Twitter feed where I ‘tweet’ the things I overhear @laurieschaffler. This motivates me to listen. Plus, I want to record and remember what I hear. Maybe someday I can turn my listenings into a beautiful poem!