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  • Aarik Danielsen

Good Question

My heart houses a shortlist of creative experiences I crave before everything ... fades. 


Give me a chance to play one great show at Red Rocks, the Colorado amphitheater and perhaps the true wonder of the musical world. And by “play a show,” I mean read a favorite essay to the rocks, absorbing echoes of my own thoughts, bearing witness as a few words embed within sandstone crags to live forever. Then I will offer the rocks thanks for listening and gently excuse myself. 


I long to mount a book tour with treasured friends, primarily so I might introduce them, wax rhapsodic about them, repeat what I imagine the Beats said about one another (“Her sentences split atoms within me”).


 
I cannot begin to measure what we miss out on when we fail to ask good questions. 
 

And some evening—a Monday or Tuesday, even—catch me under the lights, in the cool, canned air of the Ed Sullivan Theater, gazing up and into stained glass while puzzling over the answer to a Stephen Colbert question. 


Alongside other talk-show theatrics, St. Stephen occasionally asks a guest to take The Colbert Questionert, a series of queries designed to lay bare the questioned; Colbert once described the segment as a “truth-seeking missile that finds out the true heart of someone.”


Colbert lovingly cross-examines the likes of Ethan Hawke, Ryan Gosling and Cate Blanchett, the whole enterprise yielding refreshing delights. Guests sometimes comment as they sense the questions working—worrying aloud what others might think, feeling they like themselves less, yet pressing on and in. 


The call-and-response provokes Willie Nelson impressions, musings on the nature of time and whether “Die Hard” indeed is a Christmas movie. And, in one case, Colbert’s question spurred the ever-soulful Keanu Reeves to preach to himself over a matter of minutiae. 


Students ask me for interview tips after 15 years of sitting across tables from artists and songwriters, novelists, and good neighbors. Like an Ethan Hawke, I hem and then haw out of my good nature, reminding them interviews never cease to be awkward with time, only less so by degrees. 


Now quite often, I show them Colbert—usually in conversation with Reeves, whose answer to the question “What do you think happens when we die?” inspired the whole series. (“I know that the ones who love us will miss us,” he says soft and lovely, as if massaging a melody.)


 
After each questionnaire, Colbert offers the affirmation “You are known.” We forfeited this phenomenon once in a distant garden, and fumble the feeling still.
 

I tell my students not to imitate, but internalize, then interpret, the rhythms of what Colbert does. He waits out answers before reacting, allowing memory and desire space enough to unspool themselves. He leaves guests room to change their minds; asks follow-up questions to encourage meaningful conversation; and never presumes upon any answers (except when asking the obvious “Apples or oranges?” It’s apples, folks). When Colbert speaks, it’s not to hear himself talk, but to return a measure of what his questions take. 


After each questionnaire, Colbert offers the affirmation “You are known.” We forfeited this phenomenon once in a distant garden, and fumble the feeling still. I cannot begin to measure what we miss out on when we fail to ask good questions. 


Female friends sometimes field anonymous questions through a social-media app, most requests leading to insight and connection, revealing some square inch of Eden. Inevitably, the bastards show up—pressing their luck, asking questions with implied answers of a sexual nature. Fascinating women, composed of stories and proverbs and perspectives, turn off the questions because somebody aims for something outside of knowing and being known. 


 
What beauty we might attend by measuring our time with someone, then aiming our words toward “You are known.”
 

Few of us would go so far, but we fail in miniature so often. We ask how someone’s doing with polite veneer, as a prelude before asking them to do something. Or we ask a question, not to recover the sacredness of knowing, but to move the conversation along. Sometimes we barely listen to, let alone live inside, the answers, springboarding into another direction. 


At worst, questions become barely-veiled means, revealing our own ends. Sadly, somewhere close to our best, our questions betray a lack of curiosity or creative flame.  


What richness we might stumble into if we imitated, let alone internalized the questions of St. Stephen Colbert: patient, probing, clearing space, never damning the unsure. What beauty we might attend by measuring our time with someone, then aiming our words toward “You are known.” At least as known as one can be in five minutes or 15, in the span of an evening. 


 
I want to recover these moments in every conversation, even though asking good questions remains daunting, awkward as hell really.
 

Two compliments mean the most in my journalistic career. In second place, “good questions,” voiced in the unexpected coda to an interview. And first and foremost, after the story runs, a note or a text or a surprise conversation that conveys the subject felt seen, heard, known. Neither happens every time, but the one usually precedes the other. 


I want to recover these moments in every conversation, even though asking good questions remains daunting, awkward as hell really. Even if my conversation partner perspires, wondering out loud, “Does this make me sound unattractive?” 


May I start with the questions I long to be asked (but also extend questions the moment and person before me beg):


How are you doing—really? 


How are you sleeping? 


What do you think about when you think about your child? 


When it comes to this life, what makes you want to stay and what makes you want to go?


And until some Monday or Tuesday night in Manhattan, a few of Colbert’s questions might make for good practice (with my own answers for good measure). 


What is the best sandwich? Grilled cheese; feel free to add tomato and onion, no need for bacon. 


What number am I thinking of? Four. My answer forever will be four. 


You get one song to listen to for the rest of your life. What is it? Bon Iver’s “Calgary” and it isn’t even close. But please play the version from Jools Holland’s show, the one that makes, then catches me up into, every kind of weather. 


What do you think happens when we die? My need to preserve—and cling to—some sort of sacred mystery prevents me from guessing the who, what, when or where. But whatever happens, I believe someone will tell us “You’re known and loved the way you are” and really mean it this time. 



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