Follow Your Curiosity to Create Something That Matters
Even if it only matters to you
Vincent Van Patten
EVERY BOOK BEGINS WITH A SINGLE BLANK PAGE — not a word, not a sentence, not a passage to one-day change history, only a page and a writer’s will.
Something must move the writer to take up arms, be it love, hate, a need to explore the depths of one’s mind, or sheer curiosity.
Many of the books that have changed who I am are of such unwieldy size and depth, that I’ve often have found myself wondering: how did these authors write these books with such meticulous detail?
The answer is the same for writing fiction, nonfiction, short stories, and poems. It’s the same motivator that turns any idea representing our universal human experience into something tangible: curiosity.
An author’s desire to learn about the world and our place in it has produced some of my favorite books such as Shogun, The Source, Walden, and The Overstory.
These books didn’t become what they are without the author’s genuine care to know who we are as people, how our cultures interact, and how human beings relate to the trees that give us breath, just as much as we do our neighbors.
To write, one must be curious. With curiosity leading the way, there’s no limit to what we can create.
My passion for writing and my love of reading go hand in hand. I don’t see the authors of my favorite books as having anything that I don’t, yet I respect them immensely because they were brave enough to take a risk and put their hearts on the page.
I love books of all kinds — fiction, nonfiction, short stories, and incredibly long ones. Each requires its own set of skills to craft, yet all derive from the writer’s curiosity.
I’ve written a story about how Leo Tolstoy’s characters in War and Peace showed me that no person is above another, as Prince Andrei looks into the sky beyond Napoleon Bonaparte, his hero, and sees him as just a petty man.
Ray Bradbury’s essays in Zen in the Art of Writing and his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 made me believe that I shall be fearless and bold in all that I do. I’ll never again be ashamed of embracing my childlike wonder.
This summer in the back of a 110 degree RV with my family in the cockpit, I watched outside the window as the heat rose from the cracking desert earth. I escaped the sweltering sun by reading James Clavell’s 1200 page epic, Shogun — for the second time.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 3,600-page, six-part series, My Struggle, taught me that we all have a story to tell. A bond exists between all that call this planet home — the trees and the waves, the animals and human beings.
We’re living our story each day we’re alive, breathing, observing, and interacting. Knausgaard captures the intricacies of daily living and the struggle we all endure inside, yet that is seldom shared.
He wrote as a way to come to terms with his father’s death. In doing so, he knit together a thread of his past, his literary and creative interests, and his curiosity of human history to create a beautiful story I couldn’t put down.
Knausgaard inspired me to fearlessly write about my own life and what I love; there will always be another soul that connects with it. It only takes writing the first few words.
I recently read James Michener’s The Source, a book exceeding 1,000 pages about Jerusalem’s history since cavepeople in 9,000 bc. Michener wrote over 40 books of historical fiction, where each centers around a location such as Jerusalem, Hawaii, and Alaska.
The book is split into chapters by periods, where each chapter tells a different historical story that all intertwine for one grand tale. Steve Berry writes in the intro of The Source:
Today, you won’t encounter many two-hundred-word sentences or millennia-long sagas involving hundreds of characters. Instead, in the twenty-first century, story, prose, and purpose are expected to be tight. In the internet age, with video games, twenty-four-hour news, streaming movies, there is just little time for thousand-page epics. Toward the end of his life Michener gave an interview in which he doubted he would have ever been published if he’d first started in that environment. Thank goodness he came along when he did. Now his stories can life forever.
When I read this, I couldn’t help but smile. I wrote in the margin, prove him wrong.
According to Berry, Michener said he doubted he would have been published today, with all of the other distractions available.
He didn’t say he doubted whether he would have written the story in the first place. I believe he would have.
Writers like Michener and James Clavell, who wrote Shogun as part of the six-part Asian Saga, embarked on these literary quests because of their love, passion, and curiosity for discovering why the world is the way it is.
The nonfiction writer and essayist Phillip Lopate describes in To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, how curiosity fuels nonfiction writing, just as it does fiction.
You follow a strand of curiosity and pretty soon you’ve got an interesting digression, a whole chapter, a book proposal, a book. The solution to entrapment in the narcissistic hothouse of self is not to relinquish autobiographical writing, but to expand the self by bringing one’s curiosity to interface with more and more history and the present world.
I don’t know what I’ll end up creating in my life. I don’t know if it will be one-thousand-page historical novels or ten-page picture books, or both. But every book I’ve mentioned began with an idea.
Every idea came from being curious about how the human spirit endures, regardless of the situation, to find the light binding all things.
I will always strive to create, if only to release what’s in my heart and soul and find that light.
There will always be hardships in anything we dream of building— a business, a book, a clothing line, a restaurant. Others may doubt us when they see what’s out there now, the best of the best that’s stayed afloat despite the world trying to bring them down.
But others don’t know the spirit we foster, the love that we have for our craft, or our curiosity about why the world is why it is. They don’t know of our desire to make it better. It only takes setting down one word or asking one daring question to set the wheels in motion.
Vincent Van Patten