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Listen Up!

I’ve heard that undergraduates can only communicate in 140 character bursts. But this semester, I have a batch of students in my creative writing course who can write. Brilliantly, elegantly, evocatively? Well, sometimes. But their competency allows me to focus craft, taking their writing to the next level.

The course is devoted to noir—and like many complex concepts, the best way to grasp this genre is through immersion. So, we’re reading the great writers, watching classic films, and listening to old-time radio programs. The first two of these approaches were fairly obvious, but the radio programs were a stretch. A long stretch, because the culminating project requires students to transform a short story into a radio play.

So, one might say that I’m trying to save a dying art. I am resuscitating the skill of listening by following the adventures of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade:

To be honest, my efforts are also motivated by nostalgia. When I was a kid, I used to go to sleep in the summer while listening to radio broadcast of baseball games. Today, information is so intensely visual that authentic listening is a quaint anachronism. And this would be fine, except for one thing—we are still storytellers attuned to the human voice. Let’s remember, the spoken word is a million years old, the written word but five thousand.

I’m encouraged by the surging sales of audio books. Some pundits decry these recordings as chipping away at literacy. Their concern is valid, but there is a skill as vital as literacy. Let us call it listenacy—the capacity to deeply engage the human voice. Perhaps much of the world’s problems would be addressed if more people could read, but I wonder how many problems arise because we can’t listen. Few conflicts have arisen because people failed to read the writings of one another; but much blood has been shed because we failed to hear what others were saying.

There is a good reason that I enjoy listening to radio plays, as much as reading Chandler and Hammett. It is the same reason that ministers speak from the pulpit when we could just read their sermons. And the reason that I tell my children that I love them at the end of our phone calls when I could just send a text.

Maybe my next blog should be a recording…

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