Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Curiouser and curiouser

It’s easy enough to imagine how Stone Age people started making their stuff. Ugg probably stood on a stone, cut his foot, swore, felt sorry for himself but at some point made the connection between the flint being sharp and therefore just the thing to shave with – so stone tools were born. What isn’t so easy is to conjure up how Bronze Age people started doing whatever you have to do to make bronze. It isn’t as if their equivalent of the media started saying it was the dawn of a new era – the Bronze Age – which made everybody want to be trendy so they all got bronze-making stuff from their Wal-Mart. It needs mixing and heating and pouring and things.

And then, when the Iron Age arrived, it was even more complex because at least with copper, it flowed when it was heated and it was a nice colour so you could see it, but iron ore looks like rubbish, and there’s no melting and flowing and prettiness. And yet they somehow knew or found out that if you added it to a mixture of tin and copper and lead (I think – I don’t have to be meticulous with my research for musings such as this) it made it all less brittle, you could hammer it into shape, shrink it onto wheels to make tyres, and the ingredients were all nearby anyway so there was no need to spend hours stuck in traffic jams on the trade routes to get copper.

So what the hell has this got to do with anything? Well, I was listening to a podcast of a great BBC programme this morning as I was riding my bike. It’s called In Our Time and it deals with all sorts of subjects and is proof that dumbing down hasn’t yet penetrated every corner of life. They were talking about the Iron Age and there are so many mysteries about how some things came about that it made me wish I could go back and see what was happening.

And that in turn made me think of those celeb questionnaires which ask questions like ‘What was the best kiss of your life?’, ‘How would you like to die?’ and ‘If you could go back or forward in time, what period would you like to visit?’ I could answer the first two easily, but for the third, there’d be too many possibilities. Even if you just restrict it to travelling back in time, there are so many things to witness, to learn, to marvel at. We could see who had the idea of riding horses and how they set about doing it, watch people daubing stuff on cave walls, find out just how sophisticated the Greeks and Romans were and what Stonehenge was really for. Then going the other way, we’d meet extra-terrestrials, see babies being born with their iphones and ipads already charged and wired into their brains – all sorts of stuff.

And what it all boils down to is that, while everyone lists the same sort of characteristics when it comes to writers – a way with words, good observational skills, the ability to empathise, a vivid imagination – they don’t use the word ‘curiosity’ nearly as frequently. While we remain curious, we’re still alive, we still engage with our surroundings and with other people. I can’t imagine a state in which being curious about something wasn’t part of the equation. Books telling people ‘How to write’ should always encourage readers to ask ‘What?’, ‘Who?’, ‘When?’, ‘Where?’, ‘How?’.

And perhaps most of all, ‘Why?’ – because it’s usually the hardest of all to answer.


  1. There's just too much to learn and not enough time, isn't there?

    I'd really struggle to find a time I most wanted to travel to as well. So much to see...

    Curiosity? Yes. It's endless. I can't overhear a snippet of a stranger's conversation, or see a particularly striking image, without then pondering the potential stories behind it all.

    Do writer's minds stay alive longer because of this, I wonder? My dad does crosswords to keep his brain sharp - I can't imagine a time when I'd have to resort to same... in fact sometimes it'd be nice to *not* think all the time.

    But only sometimes...

  2. Exactly, Sandie. And your comment about the potential stories behind everything implies an incredible richness of being (sorry - it sounds pompous and arsey and pretentious but it's exactly what I mean). There are these surfaces everywhere - harmless, meaningless things and events but they spread in all directions (and dimensions probably, too). And the time of *not thinking* will be with us sooner than we want it to be anyway, so let's enjoy it.

  3. it's always fascinating to watch your mind work, Bill. Babies born with internal Ipad. Is that a good thing?

    One of my favorite workshops is one called Why Why Why by Sherry Lewis. She calls it the most important question for a writer.

    I love that there are still podcasts asking curious questions about uncommon topics.

  4. Marley, the temptation to pursue the iPad/baby thing is strong - towards a world where virtual and real have changed places - but I need to clear the decks first.

    You can download the podcasts from the BBC using that link. It's a weekly show and the range of subjects is bewildering.

  5. Another good 'thinking' post, Bill. I think endless curiosity about our world, and people, is what keeps us young in spirit, whether or not we are writers. Hope you get around to writing that story about the juxstaposition of the real and virtual.

  6. Actually Rosemary, after I'd written that, I remembered my sci-fi/fantasy thing which I need to expand a wee bit to fit the publisher's criteria for releasing it in print as well as ebook. That's all about the interplay of virtual and real. I still can't shake this feeling that an ebook isn't really a book. The two of mine which are ebooks won't be real to me until they're on my shelf.

  7. To me, curiosity is a sign of intelligence and compassion. The nastiest people I've met lack both these qualities and the smartest, nicest people I've met are the most curious.

  8. Couldn't agree more Linda. Compassion is one of my favourite words - and there's not enough of it around.

  9. As for ebooks being real books, there was an interesting article in a Dutch newspaper about that. Ebooks aren't popular at all here, mainly because the price is nearly as high as the paper version. People don't want to spend money on 'just' a file. Ereaders don't sell well either, people aren't willing to invest in it. The fact we don't have a Dutch Amazon might have to do with it too.

    As for your last remark on 'how to write'. I couldn't agree more. Do you think writers are more curious than other people (in general)?

  10. Very cerebral, Bill, and a lot to think about. I think writers are born curious and are forever playing the 'what if' game.

  11. If we used more than 10% of our brains, imagine what we could come up with. I agree with Linda. The more curious you are, the more intelligent.

  12. Anneke, hard to say. I just think that curiosity's part of thr writer's make-up. As Chris says, part of the 'what if?' syndrome.

    And, Jean, whether it's curiosity or intelligence, we need lots of both nowadays.