I don't have much to say.
When it comes to stories, my own is boring. I have taken enough nonfiction workshops to know that memoir just doesn't work for me. And yet, I write. Why? That's a big question I'm not sure I can articulate an answer to. I will say this: One reason I write is that I like to listen.
In my junior year at Columbia, a group of friends and I went to an etiquette dinner at Havana Central. Aside from a free three-course meal, I was not expecting much. We patiently sat with our hands and napkins in our laps (our souls, to quote the "Graduation" poem in subway cars) while a woman with a thick Russian accent clicked through a series of PowerPoint slides on how to behave at business luncheons. I listened carefully, doubting that I would ever stay in the corporate world long enough to use such lessons. Then she started talking about eye contact.
A direct gaze into the eyes of your interlocutor is too intense, she said. Instead, look at the brow line, on the lower forehead between the eyes. You will appear to make eye contact, without thrusting visual daggers. Little did I know that I would appreciate this tidbit more than the tres leches I had for dessert. I have used the eye contact trick during coffee with friends, job interviews, and first dates. While at first I thought I was fooling people with feigned focus, giving myself freedom to soar into the galaxy of daydreams that I happily dwell in much of the time, the trick was actually teaching me the opposite. For the first time in my life, I made a conscious effort to stop spacing out. I began to understand the vital importance of being present in a conversation. Of listening.
At Columbia, we are often told that we are being taught to think. The rigorous study of past works and traditions is supposed to ease our launch into independence and originality. We are supposed to curate, then create. We are supposed to define a style and a strategy. An intellectual identity. Autonomy of thought. We are taught to gather a board of agreeing and dissenting individuals with whom we volley our ideas before unleashing them on the public—a community of scholars. We are often encouraged to pursue individual acts of heroism—awards in this field, achievements in that field.
But who cares if we can think if we don't know how to listen? If and when we ever do learn to think, who will listen to us?
Reporting taught me as much about listening as the eye contact trick did, and the eye contact trick has helped my reporting. When I go to meet sources, I remember that the sources have the story. They are the story. If I can't listen to them, how can I ever hope to put that story into writing? It helps to sacrifice use of the handy recording device in my iPhone just so I can look people a little above the eyes. And sometimes there is no news, but there is always a story. It can't hurt to listen.
I have loved every minute of my humanities education, but reporting has given me far more humanity than the Core did. Because as a reporter, if I can't sit down with someone and focus on him or her completely free of distraction in order to try to understand what he or she is trying to say, I am being nothing less than dishonest and untrustworthy. If I do not practice yogi-like presence I will fail the source, most importantly and immediately, to say nothing of colleagues and readers.
Through writing for campus publications, I have found a small group of people who are willing to listen to me. I have reached out with my voice and others did not let it echo through cold university hallways. The least I can do is pay it forward. But it's not just a fear of failing others that makes me want to continue reporting. It's a small miracle that happens on Lerner couches or at Butler Café tables, when someone with something to say meets someone with a pen but very little to say. And suddenly, the lure of another galaxy feels faint compared to the floor that grounds my feet.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in creative writing. She was a news writer for the 134th and 135th volumes and the View From Here editor for the 12th and 13th volumes of the Eye.
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