Every person has a toolkit, a set of skills (physical, mental, emotional) that they use to navigate their life. When you learn something–anything–it becomes part of that toolkit, and the more tools you have, the more of life’s challenges you can handle with less strain than the person without those skills, that knowledge, that attitude.
It’s easy to imagine what tools you need for “basic getting along” when you look at small children who don’t have them yet, and how we help children develop: they need to be able to communicate with others, manage their own bodies and their own emotions, complete the “activities of daily living” (dressing and undressing, keeping themselves clean, feeding themselves, etc.) I have a book, written maybe 25 years ago, that lays out in detail the skills those authors thought a disabled child had to learn before he or she could live independently. I was a grown woman who’d been living independently for decades and I hadn’t mastered all those skills! (I call a plumber or electrician to do some of the things that book mentioned.)
But what about writers? What is–or should be–in a writer’s toolkit? What skills, in and out of writing, does a writer have to have, what’s nice-to-have but not that necessary and what are the specialized tools that are only needed rarely, or by some specialists? On some Tuesdays I’ll be writing about the writer’s toolkit, and today’s tool is…
Curiosity. Whether writing nonfiction or fiction or plays or poetry, a writer needs a good stout lump of curiosity. Trained curiosity. Focused curiosity. Curiosity about words (what’s the word for that thing on the end of a fabric shoelace? What did nice mean before it meant what it means now?), about language as a whole, about, well, everything. People–what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. Machines–how they work and how they fail. Plants, animals, soils, rocks, landforms, weather.
Curiosity keeps new information flowing toward the writer, and that fills the well of imagination, where it can combine with older sensory impressions, facts, opinions, ideas and provide the meat that clothes the bones of a story. Curiosity makes the research fun, rather than a burden. The person without curiosity has little motivation to learn, to do any research, to pay attention to other people, to the sights and sounds and smells and flavors of a location. And that makes for very shallow, very dull writing.
Writers with a high Curiosity Quotient never run out of ideas because they never run out of questions. “I wonder…” is a thought that should be in every writer’s head at least once a day. “I wonder why that guy just slammed his mug down and left the coffee shop. Angry? Scared? Just remembered something important?” “I wonder what’s under this street?” “I wonder what exactly happens when a goose is sucked into a jet engine–what breaks first?”
Curiosity bothers some people. It bothers parents when their kids ask embarrassing or inconvenient questions. It bothers many teachers when a student asks a question that’s off-topic or unexpected, not in the book. “Don’t look–don’t touch–don’t ask–” is thrown at a lot of kids (at me, too) and so as adults many people have trained themselves not to let their curiosity out of a box.
But to be a writer, you need curiosity, the kind that leads you to read more, explore more, listen more, look more, smell more, taste more. A writer’s curiosity is broad, not confined to one topic or one field of knowledge. Encourage your own curiosity (exercise it if it’s weak!) It’s OK to spend a week or a month or a year following a new rabbit trail down the hole and through the whole burrow. Next week or month, something else will grab your interest. That’s fine. Even if you’re working a full-time day job, raising children, and short of money…there are ways to keep your curiosity busy and your imagination’s well filling.
When I was much younger, and of a lower economic status than most other students, I was asked why I wanted to study physics (that being unusual for a female in those days) and answered that I was very curious. Some wag in the group sneered “I can see that!” and everyone laughed. (I didn’t yet know that retorting “Fourth term fallacy” might have turned the joke back on the sneerer.) I did learn that admitting have wide-ranging curiosity–just wanting to learn–wasn’t acceptable for girls like me, but the habit was formed. I didn’t quit being curious; I did quit talking about it.
I have no idea what that person is doing now, but I can say that being curious–wanting to learn, to understand what I learn, to stretch my mind and stuff more into it–has been a great strategy for me in more than writing.
(mirrored on Universes blog)