Sparked by Words

W is for Wonder

 

Child_in_lake

I’m a child when I write. I find splendor in the world and I wonder how it all works. As long as I wonder about everything, my mind is open to exploring everything about which I know very little, and that’s a great deal. Languages I can’t understand, cultures unfamiliar, history I never learned, rituals fascinating to observe, food strange to eat. Why, I ask, do mines drive men deep into the bowels of the earth? What conditions, I want to know, force children to beg amidst bounty? Humans are adventurers, pioneering flight across the continents, thrusting rockets into outer space, boarding ships to journey across oceans, climbing into wagons to roll over uncharted land. Why journey into danger? Four billion years of unrecorded history, a few thousand years of written chronicles, national policies misunderstood, cultural secrets misinterpreted, continents harboring mysteries my generation will never uncover. I’m guided by the scientists, prophets, inventors, philosophers, tinkerers, activists, and statesmen who have intuited and interpreted the condition of the world and still left plenty for me to discover.

Did Shakespeare know it all, or Confucius? What about Moses who spoke directly with God? Did Albert Einstein or Marie Curie, Martin Luther King or Cesar Chavez, Susan B. Anthony or Mohandas Gandhi? Or Sappho whose poetry is mostly lost but not her influence, or Maya Angelou whose poetry remains as well as her legacy? Does Stephen Hawking have all the answers? What about Toni Morrison or Bill Gates?  All the wisdom and experience of these great people, writers, scientists, ministers, poets, political leaders, philosophers, and yet they know only fractional slivers about the universe. There is more to learn.

All these things and more make me wonder how much I don’t know. How hollow I am, pretentious, assuming. But I’m willing to explore, to find out, because I can’t write if I don’t know my subject. Welcome to wonder. Investigate the world you don’t know. Then can you write with a voice of authenticity. Even fiction writers must know something first.

Consider the back pages of many of the great books where the writers leave off the fiction and reveal some of their sources. Michael Chabon visited Alaska to see for himself the state where he imagined The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Chabon researched dozens of non-fiction books, including the history of comic art, to write The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Geraldine Brooks did the same to write The People of the Book. Brooks studied, wearing white gloves and closely supervised, the very rare Sarajevo Haggadah before writing People.  Anthony Doerr traveled to St. Malo, France, the setting for All the Light We Cannot See, to walk its walled city, and learned about radio transmissions and Braille for the book that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Jodi Picoult lists pages of resources she’s plumbed, including her interviews with people with careers in medicine and law, as well as books and articles concerning her subjects for every one of her many books. Shaun Ellis is a real life wolf expert whose experiences informed Picoult’s book Lone Wolf. For Change of Heart, she referred to almost a dozen books about Gnostic gospels, the death penalty, and heart transplants.

Barbara Kingsolver lists more than two dozen books in the bibliography she compiled while researching The Poisonwood Bible, the book about the Congo/Zaire and the Evangelical American family that moves to its dark jungle to convert its natives. Lisa See researched the hidden culture of nu shu, the secret writing of women, and visited China as background for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Amy Tan also went to China to explore her mother’s first, abandoned family before she wrote The Joy Luck Club. Kim Stanley Robinson studied the translated works of Galileo to write his historical fiction, Galileo’s Dream. In order to understand Ann Eliza Young, wife of Brigham Young and subject of David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife, he read her memoirs and lectures, as well as the work of many others who wrote about her and about Mormon doctrine and early history.

Alice Hoffman wrote in her notes for The Dovekeepers:

 

I was initially inspired by my first visit to Masada, a spiritual experience so intense and moving, I felt as though the lives that had been led there two thousand years earlier were utterly fresh and relevant…In that great silence, standing inside the mystery that is the past, surrounded by the sorrow of the many deaths that occurred there, I also felt surrounded by life and by the stories of the women who had been there. In that moment, The Dovekeepers came to life as well.

 

All these writers were enchanted by something and wondered about it enough to learn so they could then write about what they’d discovered and convey their sense of enchantment to readers. Can I recoil from wonder and yet write anything approaching the achievements of the masters? My writing is only a poor mimicry of theirs, but that doesn’t stop me from asking the questions, identifying plausible answers, and writing what I’ve discovered. Like great art, it is our fascination with the world, even when we are disappointed with its direction or outcome, that moves us to create – poetry, painting, music, drama, comedy, dance, song, inventions, ideas, and books. Great ideas are born of great wonderment.

As Sappho wrote in one of the few salvaged fragments of her lyric work:

 

So must we learn in a world made as this one

Man can never attain his greatest desire.

 

Sappho was right. I won’t get close. Doesn’t stop me from trying. I wonder. I am the child who writes.

 

Image: child in lake, public domain, commons.wikimedia.org

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Comments on: "W is for Wonder" (21)

  1. I love this. Thank you for reminding me the power and importance of wonder. Beautiful.

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  2. That image looks so like EO Wilson (of ant research fame) in his childhood. The TV special on him had just about that picture, catching tiny insects in places most of us avoid. Very cool, Shari.

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    • I found the image on public domain wikimedia.org. Neither the photographer or model was credited. Hope I’m not doing something illegal by posting it here.
      When we were kids, my dad used to take us tramping through the New Jersey woods, learning to spot all kinds of wildlife. I learned young to be patient while searching for turtles sunbathing on rocks in streams and to identify birds by their calls, silhouettes, colors, beak and tail shapes. We’d look for fallen nests and bits of eggshells on the ground below and for paw prints tracked in mud. We collected wild berries and were taught not to throw so much as a toothpick on the ground. When other kids had models of cars and planes to build and paint, I had bird models – robin, blue jay, chickadee, and Baltimore oriele. So while this lovely young girl in the stream reminds me of myself as a child, it is not me.

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      • I’m sure the image is fine if you found it on public domain. I’m paranoid about that–pay $15 a month to ‘buy’ photos for my blogs. Truly, I think all of them are public domain, but I feel better knowing I have a piece of paper that says I purchase a use license.

        Wikimedia has copyright notices. If you read them, they’ll tell you the legal way to use the images. Some require attribution, some not. Pixabay never does so that’s another good place to find images.

        EO Wilson would approve of your childhood. The difference: His parents didn’t encourage (or discourage) his interest, so he was always on his own.

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      • You and I have talked about the copyright issue, and I still worry a bit that I’m doing this illegally. I don’t want to use someone’s copyrighted image, so I avoid certain sites and anything that seems to have a specific attribution. I respect photographers and artists and believe they’re entitled to be compensated for their work. Just wish that when something is posted on a “public domain” site, we could be assured that it really is in public domain and free to use.

        Even though you’re paying each month to use photos, I doubt the original photographers are being paid. Just someone who’s done the homework to make sure all photos made available are in public domain and are “free” to use. Or, am I wrong?

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  3. What an interesting and profound post. I loved reading this. It is a wonderful thing to wonder about the world and life. Great post..

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    • Thank you, Andrew, for such a lovely comment. I carried my sense of wonder from childhood, and I believe that other creative people do the same. Still love getting down to see the tiniest wildflowers, looking up to see the stars (when the sky is dark and clear enough,) and am deeply enchanted with learning about people, cultures, and history.

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  4. Holey Moley Madam B-P! How on earth does your brain retain and REMEMBER all those references!!!!!!!!!

    I am immensely curious about the world and blessed with a mind that can’t remember ANYTHING because I can look up/read/see the same thing 5 times and each time is like the first – full of surprise and wonder. It’s true. I ain’t exaggerating!

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    • I’m laughing because we each have our strengths, Judy. Medical and psychological terminology roll off your tongue like drool rolls off mine, so stop writing yourself short. You should have seen Lori and I finding the many incorrect ways to spell amygdala – at least we both remembered it’s shaped like an almond! Isn’t it fabulous to see the wonder in the world no matter how many times you’ve seen (smelled, tasted, heard, felt) the same thing? Imagine if an obstetrician got bored after delivering her first baby? Zero population growth in a hurry.

      When I really like a book, I remember the impression it left on me, I might read it more than once, and I often save the book itself. I mark extraordinary sections with sticky tabs. The three books I mentioned here mesmerized me for many reasons. All three authors are masters who write with skill I try to emulate. All three have written about living in jungles, a comparison I noted to myself by the second book I’d read. So it was easy to put the post together, at least, example wise.

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  5. Shari, there is so much in life to experience for the first time, so why not with childlike wonder, I say. I can sit for hours and learn about someone’s life different from my own and find so many similarities that by the end I’ve forgotten we were ever considered different. Love when that happens…having an open mind to the world around us.

    I’ve missed your words. I still want to be a writer like you one day. Love you.

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    • Thank you, Audrey. I find your comment humorous – I’ve always admired your poetry and hoped I could write words so lovely, that reveal such truth and seem so effortless – though I know that much effort is put into them. The secret of good writing – making it look easy when it isn’t.
      Luvya back.

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      • Audrey, your comment touches me. The poem is based on having a long relationship with someone and recounting its many aspects – through deserts and over mountains where progress is difficult, across prairies and in water where it may be easier. Knowing that you’ve recently divorced from a relationship into which you put so much, I can see that it may be hard to read a poem about love enduring obstacles. Thank you – were circumstances reversed, I’m not sure I could be so brave.

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  6. Could it be that many of us who write do so to validate the reasons for our endless curiosity and undying need to know more? When I’m doing research, there are times when my inquisitiveness gets me sidetrack, which, of course, infuriated me because I want to get that part of a project done and out of the way.

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    • Of course, and that kind of curiosity might lead to another book on a new topic. I’ve noticed that most of the writers who belong to our critique group have banks of knowledge in many areas, not just relating to their work or hobbies or writing skills, and not even necessarily connected to each other in any but the most casual way. Probably a trait true of most people. We are a curious crew and will search out info on subjects that pique our interest.

      From what I’ve read about what motivates most authors, they start with a question and then answer it in their story, finding out along the way whatever they need to make it as authentic as possible.

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  7. Wonderful post Sharon. The day I lose my inner child and the questions she asks will be the day I start to shrivel and get old. Hopefully many more years off but I do realise that there is so much more to find out and wonder at than I knew there was in my twenties and thirties. I just wish I’d known then what I know now and started earlier in life. You’ d still find there was so much more but there’d also be so much less. It is interesting the motivating of writers – I will have to think on that. I can see the question but is that how it started. I agree too that fiction has to be researched as much as non-fiction. The authenticity lies in the facts where we’ll allow other leaps of faith if we find the facts are wrong we lose faith in the narrative totally. Looking forward to where your wonder takes you next.

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    • You are absolutely right about sustaining your inner child, but then, I’d expect you especially to understand, given your recent academic achievement.

      I wish I remembered more of what I studied in college, wish I’d taken it more seriously, and wish I’d gone further in my education. I tried several times to go for a masters degree but other things always took priority.

      I like your observation about having faith in the narrative being a necessity for continuing the writing process on a particular book.

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      • You have studied life Sharon and for that you don’t need college. Sometimes I think that all the scholarly leads to the shrivelling of the creative. I think that has been half my problem earlier this month. Apart from the sickness aspect all my work was scholarly and not creative and I was down. Now I have got my priorities realigned and although I will finish this (and soon) creative is going to come first. Enjoy your creative and then get it out there. I’m hoping my memoir Monday this week will give you a push although you probably know all that I will write.
        I like to keep faith with the narrative and I’ve got faith in you.

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      • Oops. I think I’ve accidentally misrepresented myself. I have an BA in English, but as I worked my way through college, I didn’t always pay attention to my studies as I should have. Years later I earned the equivalent of a minor in art while I worked two jobs and raised our two sons. I’d intended to get a master’s in art as well as a single subject teaching credential in same as I was teaching art at the time. It was this part of my education that was disrupted, several times, because my parents’ health began to decline. I’d enrolled in a master’s program and was ready to take my first classes when my dad nearly died. Working full time, taking classes, I couldn’t squeeze in the time I felt I needed to devote to my folks, literally feeling like the squashed filling in the sandwich. My husband also worked way over the minimum forty hours each week during the same time. A wobbly economy and family needs – I’m sure you get it.

        I’m used to a busy schedule. My father died six years ago, my mother now has Alzheimer’s disease, and I’m the only one of her children who spends time (a lot) with her. Advanced degrees are out of the question for me. Don’t feel sorry for me – you do so much to support your mom as well in all ways, so I know you understand that this goes beyond obligation or sacrifice. This kind of care is connected to one’s heart and soul.

        For many years, my creativity was devoted to finding creative ways to teach art and the religion classes I also taught. I also painted. It’s art that’s taken a back seat to my creative juices in the last 10 years as I’ve focused on writing. You’re wonderful to give me a nudge in the right direction. I get engaged in the process of writing (as I am now in a new book,) I get frustrated with the query process, and I’m not sufficiently disciplined to work on querying. But I will get there – I will. Thanks for reminding me, Irene.

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      • No you didn’t misrepresent yourself and no I don’t feel sorry for you. Gosh quite the opposite – Not only a good writer, a very creative outside the box thinker but also you have children and grandchildren. Your life has been full and care that is connected to one’s heart and soul (love that phrase) is something that you just do, not from duty or sacrifice but because…. I totally get it. I would guess Sharon that whatever you do you approach from a creative angle. I love the way you view things from perspectives that are around the corner and down the street. Its what I like to do also but I think you are a master in the art.
        Anyway enough of mutual admiration it is time for you to query and me to actually finish this thing.

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      • For sure. 🙂

        And thank you.

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