Curiosity, a Great Writers’ Motivation
By Rita Robinson
“Is the dog friendly?”
The young man holding the dog’s leash grinned, prominent dimples on his round, tanned face. “Oh, yes,” he loves people.”
“May I pet him?”
“Oh, yes,” he’ll love that. He’s a great dog.”
I dug my fingers into the chow-chow’s white, hand-length fur, massaging it back and around to its neck where the thick fur could hardly be penetrated. He appeared to enjoy it as much I did. “What a beautiful dog.”
“I spend a half-hour every day brushing him.” Again, the dimples.
Continuing on the trail in the Southern California mountain community where I live, I thought about how curious I had been to know what that fur felt like. It was thicker than, and not as soft as imagined, and cool for such a warm day.
When I was asked to post an article for LinkedIn on #IfIWere22, I thought of that white furry dog, and knew that curiosity satisfies a spark that has needled me throughout life. I suspect I’m not alone in the early pursuit of who, what, when, where, how, and why.
“Quit staring at those people, Rita Sue.” A mother’s lament. “Don’t ask some stupid question to get anyone stirred up.” A sister’s plea. “Quit asking why, why why?”
Those childhood years were spent in central Los Angeles where our family lived in a pink-stucco duplex amid a rainbow of ethnicity. One woman I remember vividly created the most curiosity, and no adult would answer my “why” of her. She walked slowly in the gutter with little steps, her head down. She wore a yellowed flour-sack dress with a rope tied round her waist. Occasionally she would look up and shyly smile.
She lived in a yellowed wood slatted house surrounded by patches of yellow weeds that fell across a walkway, and that overlapped part of the porch. The backyard incinerator was nearly obscured by weeds and never used. Instead, once a week she paid me a nickel to cart the trash to the corner vacant lot where I burned it in a shallow hole.
Her story remained a mystery until many years later when, as an adult, I visited Mrs. Scott, old when she was my childhood next-door neighbor, and older now in the hospital.
She lie in bed, her once long white hair chopped off close to her head like clumps of dried mushrooms. She had always worn it in a tight bun, but as a child and in her house for a game of checkers after school, I had seen it streaming down her back below her waist. I had asked her why she never wore her hair down in public. “Oh that wouldn’t be proper,” she said.
I bent closer to her in the hospital bed, so she could talk about her life in Scotland before she immigrated to the United States, and about our old neighborhood. I asked her about the women who walked in the gutter, and recounted the trash burning.
“She couldn’t stand fire, you know,” she whispered in dry breaths. “She eventually escaped the Nazis, but before that, her two sons were burned to death. She could never stand the sight of fire.”
It wasn’t until my 30s that I realized how powerful is the word “why?” It led to a return to college after an early marriage, three children, and stepping into a creative writing class because the other class I wanted to take was full. That led to writing for magazines from home as my kids grew up, and later to a fulltime reporter’s job where I was paid for being curious. By then, as Einstein admonished, I knew to “question everything.”
Curiosity Doesn’t Kill Cats
Reinforcement also came from writers such as Studs Terkel who died in 2008 at the age of 96. His last book, P.S. Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening, was published posthumously the following month. Before his death, he said he wanted his epitaph to read, “Curiosity did not kill this cat.”
Todd Kashdan, author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient., says that the higher the level of curiosity, the greater the analytic and problem-solving skills.
Life unfolds, and not always neatly or as planned. I don’t believe that it would have been possible to know then what I know now because along the way I learned from every experience and from every person I ever asked “why?” That diverse group includes friends; family; CEOs and farm workers; scientists; rape and other victims; police officers; soldiers; astronauts; Muslims’, Christians and everything in between; red-necks to intellectuals; movie stars and the homeless; murders, lawyers, judges; con artists; a broad swath of people with causes; artists, musicians, and writers; and from poets to politicians among others. All, including the woman with the rope around her waist, have influenced the shape of my life.
Lacking wise words for what I didn’t know at age 22 that I know now, I turn to Walker Evans who may have answered that question best in 1938 at the first one-man photographic exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art: “Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”