The Irreplaceable Listener: the importance of listening and self-doubt

illustration from 2011 when I was first getting started in wine
I am riddled with self-doubt. By now it’s developed its own personality. I imagine it an ethereal presence, more aura than substance, but it does have a voice. It speaks in whispers. When other people describe me, they often say I am confident, but inside that doubt is whispering.

When I work the whispers disappear. It’s a paradox, it seems, to lose the voices while doing the very thing the voices talk to me about. But there it is. Work for me is a kind of peacefulness. There, I live in a space of simple joy. Joy for me is a kind of surrender to the action.

Much of my time, I travel the world tasting wine and interviewing winemakers, walking vineyards and listening to those who farm them. There is a moment when something in these interviews shifts – the other person begins to share more freely and my self-doubt falls away. It is a moment when a level of rapport between the two of us clicks on, and how they share their work feels like not just a glimpse at the work they do but them. In those moments the whispers stop, as if even the self-doubt is fascinated by whoever I am there to see.

Elsewhere in my work I also spend time speaking or leading seminars, and writing but it is when listening to people I love my work best. When listening what I am doing seems to have little to do with me. Instead, by being fully present, absorbed in the other person – the insight they are sharing, the way their mannerisms and ways of speaking may reveal their inner world – my life becomes a mechanism for witnessing and absorbing them.

The joy of listening remains long after as I drive away. There is such intimacy in sharing that individualized space with whomever I am interviewing, of stepping into the world they are offering me, that much of me for long after feels stimulated and fulfilled. Excited by what I’ve gotten to witness. It’s an experience where in the joy afterwards I feel surrendered to some grander plan, as if the main reason I live this life is for these moments between me and one other person when I am there listening.

illustration done in 2011 of my birthday wine that year, when I was first getting started in wine
It is later, when the joy calms, that it begins to appear otherwise, that self-doubt returns. It is difficult to translate those shared moments, so small in their scope, to a larger world, or to turn such work into income. Reflecting on that, my work begins to seem irrelevant. From the perspective of broader reach, it largely is. There is no way to commodify and sell the act of listening. Counselors, psychologists, I suppose are a sort of listening profession. They have found a way to sell the time they spend listening to people share their sorrows or confusion. Priests through the confessional have done something similar. They are not paid by confessors but by the Church. Beyond such examples, it seems silly to imagine listening as relevant work worth paying for.

In the 1970s, Studs Terkel proved an exception. Today, some podcasts do as well. But in 1974, Terkel’s collection of transcripts, Working, from conversations with people discussing their work across almost every profession and level of fame – movie actor to garbage man, famed writer to house wife – was a kind of revolution. The transcripts were inspired by the radio show Terkel had interviewing both regular and famous people. Working was not the first or the last in his series of books compiling such interviews but it was the first to become a best seller and focus entirely on working life. Before it he’d compiled interviews with jazz performers, with regular people about their life in Chicago, and a more historical text on surviving the Great Depression. Terkel spent most of his life gathering interviews and transcripts in this way. Over time, his vocation gave him insight into the values and choices of everyday people. In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, Terkel offered the then-President elect advice based on Terkel’s own lifetime of listening. Listening had given him insight befitting of a President.

In my early twenties, I did two and a half years of professional actors’ training, primarily in Meisner Technique, though I also studied on camera acting, took a community college intro to acting class, and was a student actor for the same college’s directing class. I never had interest or the intention to be a professional actor and instead was trying to grapple with my own fears of being seen, and of speaking in public. It was there in the Meisner training I was introduced to Terkel’s work. In the second year of the program, we were asked to select from the collection Working to perform one of the transcripts as a monologue. I have no idea which one I selected. For me, the collection was far more fascinating as a sort of stained glass display of human life, each transcript a colored pane in the larger window. In truth, the extended study of acting did little to assuage my fears of being seen. I still feel skin crawling discomfort in getting attention. Instead, it shifted my perspective on both sides of the process – performing or speaking in front of others, and watching or listening to those that do. In either case, what I found through the training was an experience of great surrender, a way to give myself to the project at hand whether it is public speaking, or listening to others, to surrender even to discomfort and to move with it.

That sense of surrender is what I struggle to find in my moments of writing. The longer I have gone between writing sessions the more it feels like agony. Everything in me wants to avoid the work and the whispers feel more like screaming but instead of coming from some ethereal presence they feel like they come from the center of me. I rarely release actual sounds, though admit I sometimes do. Instead, it is as if I’ve learned to wrestle with myself, as if there really are two of me. And then eventually, if I keep at it long enough, the fatigue of wrestling gives way to surrender and I simply write. When I finish a piece, the relief is radiant and I move again into a similar joy I get from listening. It feels as if I’ve really accomplished something and witnessed a moment so intimate it is irreplaceable. By the time a piece is published, the joy has usually returned to self-doubt and I avoid thinking about it. If I let that shift to self-doubt hover too long I go back into a cycle of too much time between writing sessions and the process again becomes agony. It is from this experience I’ve learned the importance of wrestling. Agony is the doorway that can take me back to joy if I go ahead and wrestle through it. If I want to avoid wrestling, I can instead practice writing every day. But often, I don’t want to, and so I value wrestling.

illustration done in 2014 when I fulfilled my dream of drinking Salon by tasting every vintage made back to the 1970s side-by-side
Many writers I know describe a similar process of agony and retreat, of advance and exuberance. Then there are writers that seem to never have that experience. I think of them as journalists, invaluable hunters of facts and information. Even as they also reveal incredible insight into current events, and startling portrayals of human experience, somehow journalists seem guided more centrally by trust in their training than agony of the unknown.

For me, exploration of the unknown is what fascinates me about listening. It is in those moments, when two people have really found their rapport and speak with each other as people through their professions, rather than merely as two professionals doing their work, that that exploration begins. It is here that whoever is speaking seems to be discovering themselves and their work anew, even as they are sharing subjects they would seem to already know. The excitement of that discovery, or rather, of re-discovering the fascination we have with our chosen profession is what triggers my excitement for listening. It’s the same reason I like to listen to people re-tell stories of how they fell in love with their life partner or loved one. It’s like witnessing the spark of them falling in love all over again. Or, in interviews about work, the moment when new intimacy with the very thing the person has given most of their time to working on emerges. Besides the very subjects being discussed, what fascinates me about these moments is how the person listening helped inspire them, even as from another angle it seems to have almost nothing to do with who is listening precisely because it is about the person speaking.

Listening in this way becomes a sort of paradox – simultaneously creative and yet invisible, a profound intimacy that disappears in a moment, the moment in which the person listening becomes an irreplaceable audience rather than a simply exchangeable one. The particular listener is irreplaceable because it is their rapport with the speaker that helped the speaker re-discover their own story in just that way. And then the moment passes. The intimacy shared closes and the two people go on again about their lives.

If the self-doubt I suffer made me insecure – self-doubt and insecurity are importantly not the same – here is where I would bring in some kind of defensiveness. I could claim the moment never really disappears, that the intimacy matters, and becomes infused into whatever the person does afterwards, that they somehow imagine their lives differently after the experience, and that makes the listening important. In some cases, something like that might be true. In other cases it is simply not. Avoiding the trap of defensiveness matters. It won’t make the experience any more or less important than it happens to be anyway. And without it the self-doubt can offer a subtle lesson.

Self-doubt serves me partly because it is right. What I do is irrelevant from a large-scale perspective even as it also fascinates me for its specific moments. But it also serves me because my intimacy with self-doubt makes me, on the other side, acutely aware of those moments when I have surrendered to the action and helped foster something new.

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