Channeling Terry Gross

I have wanted to write a book about aging and mobility for as long as I have worked in this field -- more than 25 years. I organized it and reorganized it in my head, but it was not until the Storybook Tour that I knew what I would do. Suddenly, I was energized. I was ready to write.

AARP Maryland interviewing for the Storybook TourPhoto taken by AARP Maryland

I dug up my paperback on how to write a book proposal and reread it, for the third time. Then I went to Amazon and performed my favorite research method-buy the four most popular books on a subject and read them. Not very sophisticated, but efficient and effective. 

I was ready to write my book proposal. I took a few days to work from home, propped myself up in bed (doesn't everyone write in bed?) and cranked up the concentration kilowatts. Out poured the proposal, with passion and clarity. I was thrilled. I was writing at last.

Then I came to the place in the formula where I was supposed to lay out all of the chapters. I stalled, for days, then for weeks. I could do it, I could say what the topics would be for book chapters-the changes of age, the safety implications, the importance of driving and mobility in our culture, the roads and how we can improve them to accommodate older drivers, occupational therapy and the promise it brings for assessment, screening and accommodation, technology and how it is changing everything, from alternative transportation to driverless cars, blah, blah, and blah. I couldn't do it. It was so boring, I even bored myself.

I despaired, I accused myself of not trying hard enough, I staged my special writing formula: strong cup of coffee on one side of the laptop, knitting project on the other, well-rested, no distractions. I got nowhere.

"I'm not doing this," I finally said to myself. "I am not deciding what to say before I listen to the stories." The whole idea of the Storybook Tour is to listen, not to speak. Who knows what the chapters will be, what I will learn on the Storybook Tour?

So instead of writing a chapter outline, I prepared myself by learning to be a good listener. I did not read any books on how to do it, I just sought the stillness of listening. I call it "channeling Terry Gross." I have now been on the road with the Storybook Tour for two weeks and I am alive with this experience and with admiration for the honesty and trust of the people who are sharing their stories with me.

Some people speak mostly from their professional experience, some from personal. Everything is OK. Some say they have no story to tell, they just want to listen. Then, listening to others, they edge forward. "May I tell a story, too?" they ask, "I think I do have a story." And then they tell the story of someone who lost a job because of transportation, or a beloved grandfather who developed dementia and had to stop driving. Sometimes the transition from an intellectual distance happens within the same person, who starts the interview talking about others, then allows the conversation to progress into personal feelings.

Some people wait for the camera to be off and immediately start telling me the real story. I channel Terry Gross and ask permission to turn the camera back on to record this real story. And so far, everyone lets me do it. I am learning something about storytelling, about what happens when experience, felt inside, is voiced to others and moves outside of us into the world. I think it has something to do with art.

I am not worried about the chapter outlines anymore. I am out here listening to the truth, and I am grateful.

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