"Listen not to what he says but rather to what he does not say"

“The reality of the other person lies not in what he reveals to you but in what he cannot reveal to you. Therefore, if you would understand him, listen not to what he says but rather to what he does not say.” —Kahlil Gibran

Three summers ago, Joyce Dyer was my creative nonfiction teacher at the Antioch Writer’s Workshop. Every afternoon, twelve of us left the hot July air to gathered in a circle of desks in a cooled-off room of the Yellow Springs public library. We listened closely to whatever Joyce said. She said a lot. And all of it mattered.

Joyce was the kind of teacher who bubbles with enthusiasm about the craft, and she handed out essays as examples and spoke to us about the reflective voice and the importance of truth. She had straight blond hair, a great giggle, and she talked really fast when she got excited, which was often. I hung onto her every word. 

Here is one thing I hung onto so long I still remember it well: Joyce asked us one afternoon to pull out our own manuscripts. We had each written 20-page manuscripts, and most of us, if not all of us, wrote about own lives. Pull out our pages we did. 

Here is your homework for tonight, she said. (And you’ll notice I am not directly quoting Joyce because she would not approve—Joyce never directly quotes anything unless she has recorded the words exactly. I didn’t think three years ago I would be writing a blog about this because when it happened, as she gave out directions for homework, I did not think a great deal about the exercise. Oops.) Joyce said she wanted us to go through our manuscripts and write about what we did not write about—the things we did not reveal in our manuscripts, the things left in the shadows or underwater that we had not planned to ever shine the light on. She wasn’t accusing us of purposefully hiding anything, but there are things we don’t want to say, that we sometimes don’t even reveal to ourselves: that’s what she wanted us to write about. 

Man oh man. My manuscript was about a past relationship—“past” meaning “failed,” “failed” meaning it-wasn’t-my-fault. Or was it? I had also written about this relationship in somewhat black-and-white terms: here is all the great stuff that happened in the first part of the relationship, and here is all the terrible stuff that happened in the latter part. But is it ever that clean and easy? Her question made me rethink the vacation we had taken (during the “perfect” first part of the relationship), which I had written about in glowing terms. What had I not talked about? Well, just a couple things, minor, really: How we had disagreed about hotels. How I cut the trip short by a week. How the trip brought out our differences—he was where-to-next while I was let’s-go-home—and those differences basically forecasted the ending of our relationship four years later, but I had brushed that all off as opposites attract, or rather that differences didn’t matter when you had luuuvvv. 

I was so young.

I surprised myself by all I had not written about, had not even considered in my first draft. I returned to class the next day with new writing, new revelations, and a new lesson. Joyce taught me about digging deeper, which is what memoir is all about: figuring out what you did not even realize before. 

Now when I write, I go back and pay attention to what I did not say. Sometimes writing about that part is what makes my story much more interesting. And sometimes, though it might make the story a lot more interesting, I write about it, but then keep it to myself.