What In The World?!: Using Curiosity To Improve Your Writing
My closest friends and family know that I’m continually collecting information and writing notes. While initially they may find this habit baffling, they soon understand I’m taking notes because I must. As an exceptionally visual learner, I record fleeting thoughts and details to ensure I’m able to write about these matters later. While many of my notes, especially those with phrases I hope to use in a timed writing, don’t come to fruition, collecting them remains a constant of my writing life.
Which of these subjects interests you the most?
Yet I couldn’t as easily collect information if I wasn’t naturally curious about my environment. For instance, if I see someone in Idaho wearing a Harvard tee-shirt, my first thought may be, “Did they attend Harvard? Are they from the East Coast? If so, why are they in Idaho?” Another example when my curiosity immediately mushroomed was when I saw a bouquet of fake flowers in the back window of someone’s car. Instantly I wanted to know if the owner knew these were there, or if they needed to be delivered to a cemetery. Or, heaven help us, they were stolen from a cemetery.
For the past year I’ve collected information about bumper stickers on vehicles in my town. As someone whose vehicle doesn’t have any bumper stickers, I’m intrigued by the thought process involved in deciding to affix a bumper sticker which reads “I Am Canadian” or “Trees Are The Answer” to your vehicle. Akin to those with tattoos, I want to understand the motivation and story behind the acquisition of something not easily removed.
Perhaps because, as a writer, I’m accustomed to deleting whatever words and phrases I don’t like, the idea of permanence simultaneously horrifies and fascinates me. I wonder why people agree to get married after dating a short while, or how they decide to name their children after the most unlikely things, places, and objects.
Curiosity is one way to counter any tendencies to judge those who act other than I might wish. Asking “Why did you do that?” instead of thinking, “You probably shouldn’t have done that” puts me in a more open frame of mind. Also, I’m often surprised by people’s answers. If I’ve learned anything by asking people—whether strangers, friends, or family—questions is they’ll often offer blunt and potentially vulnerable answers. A woman I barely knew even confessed to me how she didn’t get married because she thought she had too much baggage. This concession was partly possible because of my open-minded, inquisitive attitude.
One of the benefits of being curious is it gives you permission to explore ideas and characters. For instance, if your character is about to start college, you can ask yourself whether or not this character is relieved to be done with high school. You may also wonder if this character even wants to attend college or is merely doing so to appease someone else. I find it useful to consider what my characters are afraid of, as this often gives great insight into the “why” behind their actions.
Thankfully, a desire to know more benefits your life as a whole and not simply your creative efforts. Being curious about ideas, people, and your surroundings infuses wonder and anticipation into otherwise ordinary moments. My desire to know more about people is why I peek inside their refrigerators. This doesn’t tell me everything about them; nonetheless, it’s worth noting if they have an orderly, mostly empty, or full fridge. I also notice the decorations in whatever homes I visit because this can help me better understand who lives in this space. In homes where there are no personal pictures I often feel bereft and confused; it’s as if the home seems less occupied and sterile. Then again, the abundance of personal pictures displayed in my apartment must seem overdone to those who prefer a minimalistic approach.
Hearing another language sung is another way to be curious about your world.
Being curious is one way I prevent long interludes of boredom and apathy. If I’m feeling as if “there’s nothing new under the sun,” this is my warning signal to watch Icelandic women singing hymns online or otherwise find a way to rekindle my interest in the world.
It’s difficult and likely impossible to be curious about everything. Or, to put it another way, to immediately investigate every subject which warrants your attention. When this happens, I place these subjects on the backburner to explore later. How you keep track of this information depends on your organizational preferences and needs. I own books which interest me, and having visual reminders of what I hope to eventually learn is reassuring. Another person, in contrast, may prefer to have a set of website links.
Looking beyond surface appearances is another way being curious improves my writing. For example, I’ll look beyond the superficial things I know about a character—such as their name, age, and where they are from—into their fears, ambitions, and secrets. Knowing a character’s secrets, regardless if this information translates directly onto the page, is essential. Secrets can compel us to create alter egos or pretend to be someone we aren’t. They can also create areas of intense shame when a similar secret is discovered about another person. These moments are provocative because the character must choose between continuing to hide or confessing their struggles. These crossroads in our lives—the choices we could make, but choose not to—are worth examining. Even if you don’t write extensively about the turning points in your characters’ lives, learning about them and asking “why did they decide not to pursue an art degree or marry Stewart or move to California?” helps you get a better sense of who this character is inside and out.
Finally, the rewards of curiosity is enhanced interest in your world. By no means do you have to be curious about everything. This isn’t about observing every stranger you pass and asking yourself about their motivations, struggles, and triumphs. Nonetheless, being able to approach your world with an attitude of wanting to know more and dig deeper is valuable. Trust me. Curiosity has been my faithful companion, one which has rarely failed to improve my writing and overall quality of life.