Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Developing Your Curiosity – Refilling the Well 3

 “Where do you get your ideas?” is a question almost every writer has been asked. This week, an agent asked me about a specific question, and I had no idea. The best I could do was reach back to college to explain a fragment.

We accumulate ideas, often in haphazard ways. Since most writers experience curiosity as an overwhelming drive, they have huge and strange collections at the ready. Given how universal and familiar curiosity is, it is surprising that its definition, “a desire to know,” is less than helpful.  

David Beswick, a social psychologist and professor emeritus, University of Melbourne, points to the origins of the word in careful attention or scientific or artistic interest. Curious is from the same root as accuracy, curate and care.  

According to Beswick, "People who readily assimilate what they experience to what is already known will not experience very much curiosity."

Curious people balance openness to new stimuli with a concern for orderliness. In fact, a person experiencing curiosity is suspended between the two. He or she has a sense of how the world should be, a real framework that supports experience, interpretations and conclusions. But the curious person also respects the input from the senses. The state of curiosity is a state where things don’t add up.

Uncertainty is uncomfortable. While many people will deny the data, force the fit or move on to something else, the curious person “will be loathe to either assimilating or accommodating” the new information. Curious people can tolerate living with uncertainty longer than those who are less curious.

Curious people:

·      Take in new data,
·      Ask questions,
·      Test hypotheses,
·      Doubt their worldviews,
·      Tweak their frameworks and
·      Spend time wondering about new possibilities.

They invest in the time and effort to put the pieces together in a new way. They make sense of things.

Beswick says that highly curious people tend to have exceptional investigative skills and techniques for integrating information and creating order out of chaos. They also tend to have confidence in themselves or at least feel secure about everything turning out okay.

Why should writers develop curiosity?

Curiosity provides a different way to see the world, remaking us into the kind of explorers we were as children. This often creates new understanding and new perspectives. Curiosity can also be a starting point for creativity, motivating the actions that produce great stories and works of art.

Here are some elements tied to curiosity to consider:

·      Presence – The practice of living in the moment and paying attention to what your senses are telling you opens new doors.
·      Anomalies teach – And anomalies tend to be more visible when curiosity is engaged. They are harder to ignore because they may lead to an answer.
·      Asking questions – Curiosity does not tend to stay around as an unarticulated gut feeling. It generates questions that need answers, and often this leads to both action and new questions
·      Questioning the status quo – Unlearning and suspension of disbelief seem to be curiosity’s natural partners. A “fact” that doesn’t fit, no matter how deeply cherished, has a difficult time standing up to the assault of a curious mind.
·      Basic (not applied) understanding – Curiosity is more concerned with truth than with practical concerns.
·      Engaging others – Curiosity may force those who are less social to approach others, building trust and socializing questions ideas, and questions. Developing curiosity about people can be an important stimulus to networking for innovation.

In addition, interested people are interesting people. Cultivating this interest in others promotes conversation, listening skills and being really present to others, rather than thinking about other things.

Where do I get my ideas? From wherever curiosity leads me.

This entry is derived in part from an article I wrote while at IBM, Need to Know: How curiosity drives innovation.


  1. thanks for sharing.

  2. Two things stand out for me here - being present which ties into my occasional forays into the world of 'mindful writing' something I always intend to engage with on a daily basis, maybe even just before doing the primary writing/composing project of the day. [What do you think of this kind of writing to get you writing? I know some authors talk about free writing for 20 minutes to get their writing muscle going.] The other suggestion which feels workable is asking questions. I suppose why is the biggest and best! :)

  3. Hi, Edith

    Personally, I would lean more to asking questions. This is a good basic for learning more about what is in your head. Some writers do the free writing from time to time. This is essentially how Ragtime was created. I've found it can help me when my mind is going in circles, but my writing time is too important to me to toss aside 20 minutes a day when I feel things aren't desperate or stale.

    I clearly remember talking about this with Damon Knight. He visibly sagged when I brought it up. Then he told me about how Ted Sturgeon, arguably the best pure writer SF has seen, would spend half an hour every day typing out gibberish. Ted suffered horribly from writers block and Damon said he had never seen this practice help. Ted was doing what he could to stay committed, to stay in the game, and it was painful to watch.

    I think of it as the equivalent of taking shot of whiskey before hitting the keys. It may useful on occasion. But as a regular practice it is fraught with danger.


  4. That's really very interesting Peter. My own sense is that it could be useful if I apply it to a particular writing quandary, eg some background characterization, something that will affect the bigger story!

  5. Hi, Edith
    If that specific use helps you to open up and get some fresh answers, go for it.