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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Curiosity Makes the Writer

Are you like me, Wavers - do you have a deep, abiding curiosity about life? If you see a word but can't define it - do you look it up right away? What if you are having a conversation with someone and they bring up John Muir? What do you know about the man and his place in California History? How about the Spanish Civil War? When was it and what it was it all about? Who was Robert Capa? What do you know about Steinbeck aside from the obvious (Grapes of Wrath - please tell me you knew that!) Three Mile Island? Canterbury Tales? Can you hold your own in a world brimming with facts and history? But most importantly - does it matter?

Yes, it matters. Especially if you are a writer. You should be informed and in the process of being informed all the time.

When I was just a mini-Wave-inatrix, I lived in a very rural area. We got three tv channels and my parents were hippies who'd graduated from UC Berkeley in the 60s, moved to the country where they could build their own home and raise their own food and they never looked back. They became school teachers and my father had a formidable library full of the classics.

Owing to the limited tv viewing that was allowed by my parents: The Wonderful World of Disney, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett, we kids were stuck either going outside for our adventures (we owned a slew of horses and ponies) or going through my dad's library and reading stuff like The Last of the Mohicans, Treasure Island, D.H. Lawrence, Dickens and most of all - Steinbeck. My dad loved John Steinbeck.

But my favorite reading was the encyclopedia. My dad had the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, from A to Z. At night, I would choose a letter, take the encyclopedia to bed and read about everything from Djibouti to the Dutchess of Windsor to Denmark, Drought and Dickens. Yes, I was a little freak. I loved learning about the world, one alpha character at a time. And it has served me very well in my life.

Nobody has actual, updated encyclopedia sets anymore. Nobody that I know, anyway. So I wiki things I am curious about. And my dear friend Keith and I regularly play a game we call "Stupid American" - I know, it's not very politically correct but we quiz each other about random things like:

The Reformation
The Renaissance
The Restoration

When and what was each? What time period? What happened? We get as far as we can and then we look it up. When did Napoleon live? What was his deal? What does it mean when somebody refers to their "Waterloo"? What about Ivan the Terrible? Who was Emmett Till? How do you pronounce Scheherazade* and what in the heck is that, anyway? What is the oldest epic poem?* Did you know that the last Empress of Russia, Alexandra, was one of Queen Victoria's granddaughters? And she met a very nasty end, in 1918.

Let me tell you - these things come in handy. It came in handy to know how to pronounce Scheherazade when I called Scheherazade Productions last week. It came in handy when I got a great job working on a script about John Muir. Because I know something about Mr. Muir and that meant a lot to the producer. It comes in handy to be able to correctly identify that an occurrence in a script set in the Middle Ages was not yet possible technologically.

More and more, people bandy about terms but they really don't know what they're talking about. And it's embarrassing. Rather than allowing ourselves to be dumbed down by our current tsetse fly culture, use the vast resource called the Internet to both satisfy your curiosity and learn more about Beowulf than the movie would have you know. What about 300? Is that true? Real? Accurate? Well, of course it's not accurate, so to speak - it was an interpretation of a real event - but it's way more fun and interesting if you know what the facts really were so you have a grasp of the jumping off point for the movie.

You can't know everything and of course you don't want to be an annoying, walking game of Trivial Pursuit - but this is not trivia, guys - this is our world. And having a knowledge and a curiosity about it will add depth to you as a writer and as a person. Take the time to bone up on some history and of course current events. Get informed, stay informed and never let that curious side of yourself go hungry. It will pay off in your writing, in your meetings and in your personal life.


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1 comment:

Morgan McKinnon said...

HENRY FORD: As told in “Think and Grow Rich”

During the world war, a Chicago newspaper published certain editorials in which, among other statements, Henry Ford was called "an ignorant pacifist."

Mr. Ford objected to the statements, and brought suit against the paper for libeling him… the attorneys for the paper placed Mr. Ford, himself, on the witness stand, for the purpose of proving to the jury that he was ignorant.

The attorneys asked Mr. Ford a great variety of questions, all of them intended to prove, by his own evidence, that,… he was, in the main, ignorant.

Mr. Ford was plied with such questions as the following:

"Who was Benedict Arnold?" and "How many soldiers did the British send over to America to put down the Rebellion of 1776?"

In answer to the last question, Mr. Ford replied,

"I do not know the exact number of soldiers the British sent over, but I have heard that it was a considerably larger number than ever went back."

Finally, Mr. Ford became tired of this line of questioning, he leaned over, pointed his finger at the lawyer who had asked the question, and said,

"If I should really WANT to answer the foolish question you have just asked, or any of the other questions you have been asking me, let me remind you that I have a row of electric push-buttons on my desk, and by pushing the right button, I can summon to my aid men who can answer ANY question I desire to ask concerning the business to which I am devoting most of my efforts…”

There certainly was good logic to that reply.

That answer floored the lawyer. Every person in the courtroom realized it was the answer, not of an ignorant man, but of a man of EDUCATION.

And so the point stands…any man is educated who knows where to get knowledge when he needs it, and how to organize that knowledge into definite plans of action.

Ford left a personal fortune estimated at $500 to $700 million, bequeathing the largest share of his holdings in the Ford Motor Company to the Ford Foundation, a nonprofit organization.