What gives your writing backbone? What makes it stand up?
This question was rolling around in my head as I made my way to Portsmouth to hear New Yorker staff writer and book author Susan Orlean speak about her latest book, Rin Tin Tin. Before evening’s end, I would have a very satisfying (and inspiring) answer.
As my beau and I took our seats in the Music Hall’s charming “younger sibling” venue, The Loft, I had no expectations (always, I find, the best way to attend a reading … or, open a book). Orlean did three readings from Rin Tin Tin (totally whetting my appetite for the story of this superstar canine who is simultaneously a household name and something of an enigma). Via the readings and her on-stage narrative, Orlean gave the audience a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at her research and writing process. It wasn’t until we got to the Q&A part of the evening, however, that the fireworks started going off in my head.
After learning that it had taken Orlean something in the neighborhood of six or seven years to complete Rin Tin Tin, someone asked what gave her the stamina to stick with such long-term projects. Her answer: Curiosity.
Another audience member then asked the age-old question, “How do you know when you’re done?” Orlean quipped, “Your editor calls and says, ‘You’re done.’” After the knowing chuckles faded, she talked about the turning point in her research when she realized that she had more of a complete and in-depth picture of the story than the individuals she was interviewing, each of whom had only one piece of the whole tale. She then named the thing that lets a writer move to the stage of putting words down and sharing them: Courage.
Hearing these two words was like hearing my name called out in a crowd of strangers.
I felt my backbone straighten. I leaned in. “Curiosity” and “Courage” are two of four words that define my yet-to-be-unveiled framework for marketing (my day job) and writing (my work of passion). They are the foundational elements for creative work of all kinds. They are the place where you start and the place you return to when you get stuck. Neither is more important than the other. In fact, they feed each other – curiosity helping to create courage and courage emboldening curiosity.
Curiosity and courage work for you whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction. In non-fiction, curiosity fuels the research fires and inspires your inner reporter. In fiction, curiosity lives in the questions “what if?”, “what happens next?”, and “how does it end?” In either type of writing, curiosity drives you – the writer – to push deeper into the story.
Curiosity is evidence that you care. It is the opposite of apathy. To do your best writing, you need to give a damn. What matters to you? Write about that. Follow that lead that keeps you up at night. Build a story around it, or unearth and share the story that already exists. Let yourself be consumed with a burning desire to know, to learn, and to share. Orlean talked about needing a sense of discovery and amazement in her projects. She said that she knew she was on the right trail when each new piece of information made her think, “Wow! That’s amazing!” Her creative fires were stoked by a constant need to share what she’d learned with others, to give her readers that same moment of awe and epiphany.
Orlean spoke of courage at the very end of the evening. After talking about reaching the turning point in her research process – knowing she had learned all there was to learn about her topic – she said, “Writing is purely an act of nerve – of saying, listen to me.” I know that jumping off place well. You have done all your preparation. You’ve researched and outlined and planned. It’s time to put the words down. But fear sidles in beside us, causing writer’s block to bloom like some sinister flower.
- Susan Orlean
That’s when you have to get up the nerve to put yourself, your ideas, your words, your story out there. It’s a vulnerable place full of uncertainty, doubt, and imperfection. But, we have to step into it anyway. Courage gives us the push we need to let the world see us with all our imperfections.
Courage is not a lack of fear. Courage is moving forward in spite of fear. In my experience, curiosity is a wonderful antidote for fear and impetus for courage. When we are so curious about something that we can’t bear to be kept from knowing, we grow more courageous in order to sate our curiosity. And as we grow more courageous, we act more readily on our curiosity. It’s a magical elixir that pushes us forward in our work.
Though I wasn’t terribly familiar with Orlean’s work prior to hearing her speak, I’m so glad that I let my curiosity about her inspire me to make the trip to Portsmouth. It was a great pleasure to learn more about her work, her process, and her inspirations. It was also deeply encouraging to hear her talk about the roles of curiosity and courage in creative work. I’m looking forward to letting my curiosity guide me, and my courage find me as I move further into my writing journey.
How about you? What roles do curiosity and courage play in your writing process? Do you listen to your curiosity? Do you feel courageous?