I sometimes wonder whether curiosity, rather than creativity, is the true hallmark of an artist.
In my experience, writing isn’t so much an act of creation as it is a journey of discovery. As I’ve grown as a writer, exploring and developing my craft, I feel less and less like I am creating something new when I sit down to fill an empty page and more and more that I am simply attempting to uncover the story that is already there. My words are merely the medium by which the story comes into view.
I like how acclaimed author Anne Lamott puts it in her excellent book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (a recommended read for any writer). Lamott describes the process of beginning:
“Think of a fine painter attempting to capture an inner vision, beginning with one corner of the canvas, painting what he thinks should be there, not quite pulling it off, covering it over with white paint, and trying again, each time finding out what his painting isn’t, until he finally finds out what it is.”
Writing is a way of seeing the world. It’s about seeing questions and seeking truth. Writing is not about making up something new. Instead, its about the process of discovering the intricacies and complexities of ourselves and the world around us.
That’s why curiosity is the writer’s key to creativity, not the other way around. It’s a necessary drive to learn and explore and understand. Curiosity pushes past our boundaries; it encourages us to see more widely and more deeply.
Most ideas begin with a question. Nearly every story is propelled by them. As writers we ought to embrace the questions that lead us into our work. Though uncomfortable, uncertainty is often just the right condition for writing. The questions will push us to stretch our imaginations and tread beyond the story’s perceived confines.
Questions themselves are not the goal, however. We must be careful of straying too far in that direction too. Questions open up pathways, but ultimately we are seeking truth. We don’t question for the sake of questioning. That leads us into skepticism, which will swiftly derail our creative impulses. Our questions are tools along the journey; they are not the purpose.
A healthy curiosity is born out of a humble spirit. It drives us to pursue what is good and true and beautiful. We question because we recognize how little we know and how much we have to learn.
Writing will not provide the answers, but it will help us to wrestle our way towards them.
As we explore and question, the writer processes and renders reality in words. It is our responsibility as well as our privilege.
I’ll never forget the moment that I realized, with a start, that not everyone feels the sudden compulsion to capture a moment or an image in words scribbled on a restaurant napkin. For years I figured everyone thought or saw the way that I did, with words intruding upon and translating life. But that simply isn’t the case.
We are entrusted with a particular gift by which we process life. Like others process the beauties and complexities of life through music, art, athletics, mathematics, and many other disciplines or avenues, the writer asks questions and engages the world with words.
The written word is not only for the growth of the author. Through this medium, we are able to invite others to join the journey of curiosity. We are able to take the reader with us as we question, explore, and discover. Perhaps the gift of our words and stories will serve as a conduit for our readers to ask their own questions and tell their stories. The discoveries are meant to be shared with one another.
That’s why curiosity is so important to the writing life. It takes us beyond ourselves. It teaches us empathy. Curiosity will actually fuel our writing and translate into the ideas that come to life on the page. At the same time, curiosity will take our writing deeper and, just maybe, teach us something about ourselves in the process.
When we cultivate curiosity, we nurture creativity. Find ways to pursue curiosity in your life on a regular basis. Learn something new. Slow down to listen and observe closely. Practice wonder on a regular basis. As you write, ask questions of your plot, your characters, your setting, and your theme. Look for connections where you didn’t know they existed. Discover ways to see things from someone else’s perspective.
The discovery that is central to the writing process is not only a discovery of “what-will-happen-next.” It has the power to lead you–and your reader–deeper into your work, your play, your studies, your relationships, and so much more.
What questions are you asking in your writing today? What questions should you be asking?