by Rebecca L. Hein

(Editor's Note: Rebecca Hein is a writing coach, a teacher, and a correspondent for the American Reporter online. She specializes in helping blind and visually impaired writers find markets for their work. Contact her at [email protected], or 1-888-921-9595.)

Family jokes depend on shared experience and a private language, but sometimes anyone can enjoy them. This is especially true when the gag is aimed at us and our foibles.

When my husband Ellis and his brother Mike were boys on the farm in Oklahoma, they noticed that some dogs barked louder and more often than others, and this trait was related to the shape of the muzzle, which they dubbed the "shep."

A dog with a long shep barked more than one with a short shep. These mutts created so much noise that they drowned out their owners' commands to shut up, herd the cattle, and stop harassing the chickens.

Ellis and Mike also observed that the longer the dog's shep, the shorter its ears. This led to a measurement yielding the shep-ear ratio. After that it was a short leap to the study of this characteristic in people: the larger someone's shep-ear ratio, the less chance you have of getting through to him.

When Ellis told me this, I could instantly name a handful of people, mostly from my family of origin, who'd talked more than they'd listened -- indeed, who talked so much that they couldn't hear at all.

This high ratio isn't limited to spoken language. When composers suffer from it, their music is so long-winded that it wears you out. Both muse and man have ears like the wing of a gnat, cocked at the hapless audience -- and a snout as long as an arrow, aimed at the music they want to write.

Wagner comes to mind, with "The Ring of the Nibelung" taking its place with Hitler's notorious diatribes as a monument of shep-ear lopsidedness.

At the opposite end, people like Ellis quietly enjoy their observations and the benefits of blending in with the woodwork. It's soothing to live with someone like this, but if you don't share my good fortune you can still reap the benefits of a reversed shep-ear ratio.

Perhaps you'll find a good teacher, as I did when I went looking for someone to edit my first book, "A Case of Brilliance." Ron Kenner turned out to be so long-eared and short-shepped that with a few words he diagnosed the fundamental problem of my book.

He said, "It feels thin."

I understood. I needed to add substance to the sections that lacked it.

After a few weeks of struggling with my revisions, I asked Ron, "How do I find those sections?"

"Read the book," he replied, "and listen for the places that call out for more detail."

A book can "feel thin?" My writing can speak to me? It can tell me what it needs? Sure enough, it could and did.

Ron's expertise is good writing, and he's been listening to it for so many years that when he talks about it, every word he says is worth hearing. He has taught me to listen to my own work.

That's what great artists have learned to do: they're so attuned to what's important that their books, plays, paintings, and music "listen" to us more than they "talk."

They fill us to the brim. We overflow. We want more, and if one of these geniuses lived a thousand years, his output still wouldn't be enough to satisfy us. Although he's been dead for centuries, he's still listening to our need for depth and beauty -- and giving us what we crave.

So the shep-ear ratio, which began life as a humorous exchange between two Okie farm boys, turns out to be a profound statement about the creative process: if we can stop talking long enough to listen, we could learn something so valuable that the whole world will want to hear about it.

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