Thursday, January 13, 2011

Listening to strangers

Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? 
And why should I not speak to you?
           - Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, To You

I love talking to strangers. Pretty much wherever I go, I find myself engaged in conversations with people I've never met before and am unlikely to meet again. There is always opportunity. On the subway, out for walks, in line at the supermarket. Cops, bums, clerks. You may be thinking this is risky, but I've found that people love to be listened to and are grateful for a willing ear, so I've never felt endangered. And really, that's what I end up doing. Listening to strangers.

I think of this as my work in the world, as the best kind of storytelling. Storytelling, after all, is mostly listening. You listen to your audience for their sighs or yawns. You tailor your story according to how they react. Sure, you're going to tell the same plot, but you can shift the details based on what they need. This is how I tell stories anyway.

When I talk with strangers, I'm doing the same thing. I listen to what they have to say, respond with what they need to hear. If I can, I tell them something similar to what they are telling me. I tell them the story they're looking for. They then know they have a sympathetic audience and can say what they need. They know when we're done talking I will disappear and take their secrets away, so they are safe with me.

And they are safe. I file these stories away, jotting them in my notebook. I remember some forever. Others might become the seeds of a character or story I tell. Still others become stories I tell the next stranger, when they are in need of solace and companionship. These conversations are among the key ingredients in this storyteller's creative life and I would never hear them if I wasn't willing to listen.

I've heard about death and birth, love and rage, damnation and redemption. Each story came spooling out of the teller with only some good listening and trying to tell them the story they need to hear so they can tell me what they need to say.

"Wow, that sounds amazing."
"My aunt had something similar. Are you okay?"
"Sure, I have a few minutes."

I don't know if these stories are factual though I hear them as true, nor do I know how they end, but it doesn't really matter. We're two human beings connecting, telling each other stories for a few moments and bridging the gaps between us. And really, in the end, isn't that what storytelling is about?

(c) 2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

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True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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