Tuesday, December 8, 2009
(The second post in a three-part series published Dec. 7 – 11, 2009)
About a year ago my son and I walked into the waiting room of a doctor’s office. I noticed the front cover of a national magazine, emblazoned with a headline about a controversial issue in California. I leaned over to my son, and in a quiet voice, told him this was a controversy he should know about.
The receptionist, an older woman, stood up and said, “I think ___ is just terrible. It’s just not right.”
The office was quiet. The woman had flushed to the roots of her white hair.
“Really?” I said.
On the one hand, I wanted to say she was wearing her pantyhose way too tight if she felt compelled to interrupt a private conversation and insert a strong opposing view. On the other, I thought maybe I should pacify her so the situation wouldn’t escalate.
I chose pacification, and regretted it the moment she sat back down to shuffle papers. A rare moment had passed, one in which I had the chance to find out the basis of her fear, and so pinpoint not only the internal rule she lived by, but the root of the controversy. Yet I allowed my annoyance to dominate, an error doubly damning for a journalist like myself.
Had I let my curiosity take over, all judgment, overwhelming emotion and personal bias — the three pillars of stagnant thought and behavior — would have fallen away in favor of a situation where I would have learned something new about human nature.
In my years of experience of interviewing, writing about and coaching people, curiosity is the tool I use to succeed. Not a tool, but the tool. Curiosity is the vehicle for unlocking the mind in order to absorb new information and concepts. When people realize you’re more interested in learning how they feel rather than in attacking them, they’ll open up in ways you never imagined.
Curiosity is also the primary tool I use when writing, and for character development in specific, whether for fiction or nonfiction characters. The more curious a writer is about the character — what she looks like, how she moves, why she does what she does — the freer the character is to be who she is and change as she must, rather than being forced to do what the author wants in order to make the story end as desired.
On Friday, I’ll address Feeback Blues: When You Love Your Characters, But Nobody Else Does.
Martha Engber, author of The Wind Thief and Growing Great Characters From the Ground Up, will teach Grow A Great Character, Grow A Great Plot! from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sat., Jan. 16, at Book Passage in Corte Madera.