“Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.”
Last week I had the opportunity to spend a morning playing with my two grandsons. The oldest is three. He loves dinosaurs and Play-doh and is full of questions:
“Grammy, do you think Velociraptors can live in space?”
“Grammy, do you know how snow is made?”
“Grammy, do sharks have to brush their teeth?”
And from his little brother who just turned one a few months ago and is awfully proud he’s finally mastered the art of walking on his own: “What’s that? What’s that?” as he drops toy after toy in my lap.
I love watching the wonder come over the boys’ faces as I try my best to answer their questions, which often prompts more questions, until finally they are satisfied and go off to nibble on a cracker.
Sometimes I find it disheartening that as we grow older, we seem to forget what it’s like to follow our curiosity. We get bogged down by rules, of how it is we need approach that big ol’ monster we call the ‘real world’ and keep it locked in its cage. One could say the same when it comes to writing.
Often writers, especially new writers, go for the safety net. They may read a craft article or be encouraged by a writing instructor to write what they know. Sure, on the surface it sounds like it makes sense. Each time we sit down at the desk or computer we bring with us everything that has attached itself to us, like lint on a sock. Flannery O’Connor even said if one survived childhood one had enough material to last a lifetime.
The question is, though, how much do we really know? Do we know enough to sustain a novel or short story? Will what we know be as interesting to our readers as it is to us—or worse, what if what we know isn’t even interesting at all? I know how to make a pretty mean chicken noodle stir-fry, but I’m pretty sure nobody wants to read about it.
Back in February I came across an article in LitHub written by Emily Temple, which complied a list of thirty-one famous authors who gave their take on these very questions. Of course, the answers varied, but all seemed wise. The response given by Ken Kesey, which was taken from his article, “Remember This: Write What You Don’t Know,” published by The New York Times back in 1989, gave a new perspective to this idea of writing only what you know:
“One of the dumbest things you were ever taught was to write what you know. Because what you know is usually dull. Remember when you first wanted to be a writer? Eight or 10 years old, reading about thin-lipped heroes flying over mysterious viny jungles toward untold wonders? That’s what you wanted to write about, about what you didn’t know. So. What mysterious time and place don’t we know?”
The last time I spoke with my daughter on the phone she said my grandsons had decided to build themselves a spaceship constructed out of their mini Paw Patrol couch and a few living room pillows. The oldest manned the controls from his brother’s electronic learning table, while the youngest sat in the back asking “What’s that? What’s that?” I wonder if they found any Velociraptors.
Where will your curiosity take you this week?