Friday, September 8, 2017

A Case for Curiosity—A Necessary Tool for Writers

by Marcia Moston @MarciaMoston

Curiosity is key for successful writers.
I’m standing in my backyard in the dark before dawn. It’s 5 A.M. but the little dog that’s visiting us must have a bladder the size of a grape because he can’t wait a minute more to do his business. Actually, I’m happy to be out here because it’s time for the annual August meteor showers. My eyes sweep the northeastern sky, looking for the constellation Perseus. Suddenly a brilliant flash blazes a trail above me, then vanishes. Within minutes, another does the same.

They’re only rocks hurtling through silent space and yet my lone witness of the moment fills me with awe. I imagine other glories of the galaxies—the power and colors, marvels and mysteries of the universe that man may never see.

Indeed, there are secret things that belong to God, but thanks to nature photography and YouTube videos (such as the amazing puffer fish’s sand art) more and more of us get a chance to peer into previously hidden wonders of science and nature. 

Like photographers and filmmakers, writers also have the potential to open portals to things unseen and draw readers into worlds they wouldn’t usually experience.

Craft is important, 
But curiosity is key.

Many of us nonfiction writers are familiar with the nosy habits of our fiction-writing friends who eavesdrop on the conversations of strangers and speculate on their motives in order to store up fodder for future novels. Nonfiction writers can do the same to generate ideas.

According to Rebecca Skloot, editor of the 2015 anthology of The Best American Science and Nature Writing, science and writing have this in common: they’re both driven by curiosity. She says curiosity makes you attentive to those easily missed moments—the ones that grab your attention and make you stop and say, “Wait—what?”

As an example of one of these what moments, Skloot recounts a time she overheard a conversation in a veterinarian’s office. She was sitting on the floor with her dog who was still groggy from anesthesia when a vet walked in, “surgical mask dangling from his chin.”

A woman’s voice called out to him from behind a computer screen.
“How’d it go?” she asked.
“Great,” he said. “Patient’s up, swimming around.”
Without breaking stride, the vet tossed his gloves in a trash can and walked toward an exit.

Skloot’s curiosity leaped to attention.

“Wait, what?” I said from the floor. “Your patient’s swimming? What’s your patient?”
“Goldfish,” he said as if operating on a fish was something as ordinary as spaying   a dog or cat.[1]

That initial, Wait, what? reaction led Skloot to ask a slew of other questions such as, How do you anesthetize a fish? Who does that anyway? Why? Recognizing the opportunity for a fascinating article, she whipped off a note to her editor. “Fixing Nemo,” Skloot’s creative nonfiction piece, inspired by a moment of curiosity, developed by research and crafted by skill, later appeared in the New York Times Magazine.

Granted, some of us may not feel we are particularly curious by nature, but the good news is that we can learn to quicken our awareness. One practical suggestion is to keep asking questions—pursue those basic five Ws and an H as far as you can go. There’s truth in the cliché that “one thing leads to another.”

I would add—be intentionally expectant. Even in the everyday familiar world you live in, there are wonders and marvels to explore.

We may not all be The New York Times bestselling authors with editors at our fingertips, but we all have the potential to look for that shooting star and follow its trail.

So now I’m curious—have any of you had one of those “Wait, what?” moments that triggered an idea for a character, article or book? Please tell. 

A Case for Curiosity - a necessary tool for successful writers - @MarciaMoston (Click to Tweet)

"The craft of #writing is important, but curiosity is key." @MarciaMoston (Click to Tweet)

Marcia Moston—author of the award-winning Call of a Coward-The God of Moses and the Middle-class Housewife—has written columns and features for several magazines and newspapers. She has served on the faculty of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and currently teaches her true love—memoir and creative nonfiction—at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the Furman campus in South Carolina.

[1] Rebecca Skloot, "Introduction,” In The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2015, ed. Rebecca Skloot, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.


  1. Thank you, Marcia, for encouraging us--even us nonfiction writers--to stoke our curiosity. One thing I would suggest is to simply slow down. We miss many of those "wait-what" moments when we're always rushing to the next thing.

    1. Notaboutme1151--that's probably the first thing we should do, although I do know a few people who outrun the Energizer bunny (Edie Melson) and are full of curiosity!

  2. If you are a writer (readers too) you are curious. Curiosity is a tool we should sharpen more.
    Thanks for reminding us, Marcia.

    1. Yes, Ingmar. And I think "sharpen" is the operative word here.