Dani Shapiro writes, “When I think of the wisest people I know, they share one defining trait: curiosity” (213, Still Writing).
As she notes this connection between wisdom and curiosity, she continues, “They turn away from the minutiae of their lives—and focus on the world around them. They are motivated by a desire to explore the unfamiliar. They are drawn toward what they don’t understand. They enjoy surprise” (213).
I love how she connects surprise and curiosity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi makes that same connection, as you’ll see shortly.
But before we get to that, let me establish my own connection: that curiosity is one of three pillars of your best writing life…along with creativity and productivity.
Curious Writers Bring More to Their Work
As curiosity becomes a daily practice, our writing will benefit, because curiosity serves as a driving force to producing captivating content and developing a writer who has things to say.
Nourish curiosity and you’ll have a lively imagination drawing from a vast and ever-expanding library of ideas. Each day, even the smallest flash of wonder fans the flame of creativity.
If we agree with Dani Shapiro that curious people focus on the world around them with a desire to explore the unfamiliar—drawn toward what they don’t understand—we gather clues for how we, too, can cultivate curiosity to live out our best writing life.
If you’ve lost your sense of wonder and dampened curiosity, don’t worry. You can recapture it, funneling into your work a newfound delight in the world around you, in yourself, and in others.
If you happen to be by nature a curious lifelong learner, lucky you! Continue to explore new ways to cultivate it further to become even more curious and pour what you discover into your writing projects.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Creativity writes:
“[T]he first step toward a more creative life is the cultivation of curiosity and interests, that is, the allocation of attention to things for their own sake…. Creative individuals are childlike in that their curiosity remains fresh even at ninety years of age; they delight in the strange and the unknown. And because there is no end to the unknown, their delight also is endless.” (346, Creativity)
Did you hear his suggestions?
- Allocate “attention to things for their own sake.”
- “Delight in the strange and unknown.”
It’s similar to what Dani Shapiro was saying: even the old in age are young at heart as they “explore the unfamiliar” and let themselves be “drawn toward what they don’t understand.”
Curious people learn something new every day.
Search, Capture, Ask
My mom moved from the American Midwest to a coastal town in the South and became captivated by the flora and fauna of the area.
She bought a telephoto lens so she could capture photos of the birds that seem so exotic to her. She grew up and lived most of her life with mourning doves, cardinals, robins, starlings, swallows, and red-winged blackbirds.
Now she’s delighting in what are, for her, “strange and unknown” species. She’s “exploring the unfamiliar” as she snaps photos and looks up in a guidebook the names of birds that turn out to be wood storks, ibises, great blue herons, green herons, and anhingas.
She shares them with her Facebook followers posting one photo after another along with thoughtful captions further modeling this curiosity that comes so naturally to her.
My mom is by nature curious and developed it as a journalist, rooting out stories everywhere she goes.
But you don’t need to be a trained journalist to ask the questions popping into your head and to search for answers:
- borrow binoculars—or a telephoto lens—to study a bird
- ask a parent about her first crush
- wonder about the etymology of a word—and look it up
- dig into a time in history you know little about
- consider why a person made one choice instead of another
- ask that about yourself, as well—why did you make one choice instead of another?
Cultivate Curiosity with Daily Surprise
Mihaly offers a three-fold path to start cultivating curiosity that I’d like to suggest for you.
It involves surprise.
- Be surprised
- Surprise others
- Document your surprise (347, Creativity)
1. Be Surprised
His first tip for anyone pursuing a more curious life is to “try to be surprised by something every day” (347). He lists mundane, everyday ways to do so, like noticing an unusual car in the parking lot and ordering a new item on the menu.
A note to us all: this increased attentiveness will require us to look up from our phones now and then and engage our senses.
Igniting those senses, we may notice the ingredients in the new dish we’re served or admire the gleaming chrome on the car whose make and model we never noticed before. We might turn onto a side road to stop and admire the Harvest Moon. We could snap a photo of the dragonfly perched on the tip of a blade of grass.
Ask questions that come up during these encounters. What spice am I smelling and tasting? Why does the moon seem so huge? What do dragonflies eat? Satisfy your curiosity with a search for answers, and here your phone might actually come in handy.
And when some questions seem unanswerable, live in the mystery. That, too, is part of the curious writer’s life.
All of this information enters into us and we draw from it as we think, make connections, and write.
Surprise in Writers
Robert Frost said in an interview with The Paris Review, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Even an organized writer who sets out with an outline or a plot mapped out brings energy to the page when he finds himself surprised as he writes.
I think we know it as readers. What a pleasure to enjoy an article, book, or poem written by someone who seems to be full of wonder and delight and surprise. A curious writer, surprised by life, brings that to his work.
You can be that writer.
Driven by inquisitiveness, curious writers experiment, even play. They’re unwilling to take things for granted or take things at face value. Curious writers test new techniques and try different genres. Curious writers embrace new vocabulary and employ fresh metaphors.
In their writing and in life, curious writers embrace a-ha moments. They hold life up to the light.
2. Surprise Others
How else can we practice a healthy curiosity? Csikszentmihalyi next advises us to “try to surprise at least one person every day.” Again, his ideas are simple, not wild: say something no one expects or invite someone to join you on an outing to a new location or event. (347)
What will happen? How will they react?
Years ago, one of my daughters handed me a wrapped gift and presented it almost shaking with excitement.
It wasn’t Mother’s Day or my birthday, so I asked, “What’s this for?”
She said the book we’d been reading together at the time, The Essential 55, had pointed out that the best time to give a gift is when no one expects it because you know they did it because they wanted to and not out of obligation because it was your birthday or Christmas (55, The Essential 55).
I was blown away by her random act of love. And whenever I drink that tea, I think of her and feel gratitude for her surprise all these years later.
Follow through with your own spark of an idea to surprise someone and see how that ignites a corresponding delight in you at the exact same moment.
3. Document Your Surprise
Csikszentmihalyi’s last suggestion for a surprise-centered approach to curiosity is to “write down each day what surprised you and how you surprised others.”
Like a scientist keeping notes on an experiment, document your day’s surprises—and review those notes periodically to search for “a pattern of interest emerging…one that may indicate some domain that would repay exploring in depth.” (347, Creativity)
Most writers know what interests them, but you may discover something new in your surprise-driven days—some new topic or passion that can focus your next writing project. Or maybe it will inform your writing life as a whole.
Homework for Life™
Our curiosity looks outside ourselves much of the time, to note the surprise in someone else or to answer a question about something we’ve observed. But we can be curious about ourselves and our own lives, as well.
In his TEDx Talk, on his podcast, and at his blog, storyteller Matthew Dicks invites every person, not just writers, to document their “most story-like moment from the day” for what he calls Homework for Life™. He takes five minutes at the end of each day and thinks back: What made this day different from all the rest? (Matthew Dicks, Homework for Life | TEDxBerkshires)
Learn straight from Matthew himself in his TEDx Talk:
The idea is very simple. He writes a sentence or two—sometimes just a string of words—that will bring back a memory from the day: the moment he chose to document. He says you develop a storytelling lens when you note the small discoveries, the daily surprises, those meaningful moments you don’t want to lose. (Homework for Life™ TEDxBerkshires)
When you start collecting stories with Homework for Life™, the days stop running into each other, as if nothing is new—because every day holds something new.
His call is similar to Mihaly’s: take note of the surprises, the reactions, the lessons learned, the interactions that stand out. It’s a way to be curious about yourself, as you set aside tons of content for future projects.
Do this simple assignment and each day becomes more precious, more curious.
Trust the First Pillar for Your Best Writing Life: Cultivate Curiosity
I hope you learn to trust the first pillar for your best writing life and start cultivating curiosity.
Expand your everyday perspective to expand as a person, dabbling in new experiences and enjoying new sensations. Try a new sport. Visit a shop you’ve never been in. Mix things up: If your favorite place is the hardware store, visit a yarn shop; if you’re most comfortable at a library, head to an art gallery.
What did you see, feel, smell, and hear?
If you neglect the world around you and suppress the desire to explore the unfamiliar, what will you bring to the page? If you ignore what you don’t understand, turning away, how will you grow?
Nurture curiosity, and your writing will flow with fresh ideas and insights linked to new observations and connections you make. You’ll find yourself open to ideas, considering alternative points of view. You may feel surprise, delight, even wonder.
Learn something new every day. Surprise yourself and others. And document the stories that make any given day different from all the rest.
Because when you’re a writer cultivating curiosity about your day, your life, your moments, you’re a writer rich in material, insights, and stories.
- Matthew Dicks’ TEDx Talk
- The Essential 55 (the book that inspired my daughter to surprise me with a gift; this affiliate link takes you a newer version than she and I read together)
- Creativity, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (affiliate link to a slightly newer edition than the one I excerpted)
- Still Writing, by Dani Shapiro (affiliate link)
- The Paris Review interview with Robert Frost: “Robert Frost, The Art of Poetry No. 2” Interviewed by Richard Poirier | ISSUE 24, SUMMER-FALL 1960
- Want to Be a More Creative Writer? Get Curious! (Ep 35)
- The Top 5 Ways Curiosity Can Ruin Your Writing (Ep 60)
- Three Pillars to Your Best Writing Life series
- A Writer’s Guide to ROI series
- Next-Level Writer series
- Write to Discover series
- All podcast episodes
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