Monday, April 7, 2008

BOOK: Listening Is an Act of Love

My friend Scott says you know you are getting old when you start obsessing over talk radio. If this is in fact true, I've been old for quite some time now. And frankly, I find that my obsession continues to grow. When I lived in Bellingham, I chalked it up to not having any decent radio stations nearby. The mountain pass between Seattle and Bellingham eliminated all the great Seattle choices (KEXP), and most of what the dial picked up was Canadian stations.

Here's a little known fact: there is actually a law in Canada that says that Canadian stations must play the songs of a certain number of Canadian born artists per hour. Oh the pain of it all. I dig Alanis Morissette but my goodness, you can only hear so much Alanis and Bryan Adams before you are about to poke your own eyes out with a hot iron.

Now I am in Iowa and the radio stations suck here too, but there's really no good reason for it here, they just suck. It's no secret, I hate big radio and get pissed off just thinking about that whole machine; I stream indy stations whenever possible. And I recently acquired a new laptop without a sound card; so needless to say, I listen to a whole bunch of NPR.

I love something different about each NPR segment and now cannot sit at my computer and accomplish much of anything without NPR playing. It makes me smart by osmosis, fills my mind with lots of useless facts I then pepper on my friends, and yes, Scott, it makes me feel very old.

One of the greatest segments on NPR plays once a week; and I became completely enthralled with it after I heard its first airing: The StoryCorps Project.

The Project seeks the stories of ordinary Americans. A mother might interview her child, or a husband a wife, or two friends. They are recorded in a simplistic traveling booth, archived, and excerpts are replayed each Friday morning. The intonation of voices, the pauses for breath, even the tears, and sometimes the sobs are captured on tape. It's powerful and somehow not really fit for description in prose. If you have never heard the weekly segment, you can and should download the excerpts each week on

All that said, if you want more than the recordings, you can have that too. StoryCorps just released a book of excepts of a few of the recordings. While with the prose you lose the guttural noises, the inflection of voice, and the power of silent space in conversation; you gain an ability to assign your own voice to the characters, and to physically hold in your hands a piece of their lives, history, and a tremendous celebration of the lives of a few ordinary people. You also get to see their pictures at the end of each segment.

The idea behind the StoryCorps project is that each and every human being has a story worth telling. And that each and every human's story is truly what we should be celebrating in this life; that they are far more interesting and notable than some freaky sensationalistic Hollywood dream.

This idea of taking an ordinary person's story and crafting it into something worth telling is something that we talk about a lot in writing classes, and something that spoke to me years ago when I began teaching nonfiction writing class at a prison. I thought of many of my students' stories as I read this; many of them would not have been able to write them, but they could perform them, or tell them. I wanted to see them in this book.

Listening Is An Act of Love is a coffee table book that can be taken and digested in parts or in one setting. You will undoubtedly be compelled to want more from these ordinary folks, as well as you will want to glean ordinary stories from those you love.

You'll want to listen more. Talk less.

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