W is for Wonder
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