Eight exercises to develop curiosity and become a better writer (and person)
Developing our curiosity can serve to make us not only more interesting people but also better writers and more creative artists.
Being curious has helped me dig deeper in my writing, develop an authentic voice, and create more well-rounded characters. It has also improved my relationships and, overall, made me a happier person.
When I was younger, if someone started talking about a subject I wasn’t interested in (history, westerns, reptiles), I’d listen but my attention would wander after a while. Over the years, I learned to look at these exchanges from a different perspective.
I started asking myself, “What can I learn from this person about this subject that I didn’t know before?” Then I’d listen and ask questions. Suddenly, everything became much more interesting, including me! These types of interactions can also be mining grounds for future story ideas and character traits.
Artists need to be curious about their world, but with the stress and busyness of our daily lives, how do we maintain our child-like sense of wonder and curiosity?
Here are a few exercises that have helped me:
- Have an open mind.
Practice looking at things, people, and situations with a clear, open mind. When you find yourself judging someone, let go of the judgment. Instead, ask questions.
Many years ago, I was very sick with a bad cold and bronchitis. I was feeling truly horrible, but I had an important package that had to be mailed that day. As I was leaving the post office, a woman started yelling at me. She was furious because one of her young daughters had opened the door for me, and I was “so rude that I didn’t even say thank you.” She thought I was an awful person setting a horrible example for her daughter.
I remember just standing there, stunned, feeling sick and miserable. I mumbled an apology and went home feeling worse than ever.
I never forgot that woman and her jump to the conclusion that I was a bad person when she had no idea what was going on in my life. It taught me a lesson—don’t judge people or situations. Have an open mind. And, most importantly, give up your need to be right. This may take some practice but cultivating a curious, open mind will help you see things differently, always useful for a writer.
- See something as if for the first time.
Set a timer for five or 10 minutes and sit and observe your surroundings as if you’ve never seen them before. Pretend you’re visiting from another country, and you happened upon the scene in front of you. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the moment. I like to do this exercise in nature. As I pay attention to what’s in front of me, my natural curiosity is stimulated.
For lack of attention, a thousand forms of loveliness elude us every day. – Evelyn Underhill
- Become a lifelong learner.
Fall in love with learning. Make a list of topics you’re interested in that you’d like to learn more about. Develop a current course of study topics. I’ve always loved learning new things but much of my learning has been by accident, not by design.
I’m making an effort now to be more conscious about learning. While riding the ferry home from Seattle the other day, I made a list of topics I want to learn more about. Learning keeps us engaged and curious. This is my current list:
When you run into something interesting, drop everything else and study it. The feeling of being interested can act as a kind of neurological signal, directing us to fruitful areas of inquiry. – B.F. Skinner
- Try new things.
Push yourself outside your comfort zone. I’m not saying you have to run out and try bungee jumping (unless you really want to) but try something new.
Say “yes” to opportunities that present themselves.
Recently, a friend in her 70s asked me to attend a pole dancing contest with her because one of her friends was competing. Pole-dancing? Wow! I’d never considered it before, but I said yes instantly. I’m going with the mindset of a writer—what can I learn or observe for possible future love scenes. And, I’m hoping for some personal inspiration…maybe I’ll even start belly dancing lessons again.
Trying something new is like going on a mini vacation. It gives you that refreshed, engaged-in-life glow.
- Look at everything as an adventure.
One of the gifts of having been close to death—losing my mom, becoming a widow, and almost dying—is that I have a heightened awareness of how precious every single moment of my life is. I don’t want to waste my time here. I don’t want to live my life unconsciously. I want to be engaged in every moment.
A few years ago, I started going on “adventures” to local parks or beaches or places that I hadn’t gone to before. I went for walks in the woods. I went on road trips. I visited friends or just sat alone and wrote and/or meditated. Earlier this year, I started using my word “adventures” more frequently—more and more things in my daily life became adventures. This is my way of reminding myself to stay engaged each day and to never take life for granted. Making life into an adventure keeps me curious. Feel free to use my word or find one of your own that has special meaning for you.
When the eye wakes up to see again, it suddenly stops taking anything for granted. -Frederick Franck
- People watch.
One of my favorite things to do is sit in a coffee shop, hotel lobby, park, or wherever people congregate and watch people. Notice how someone is dressed, how they carry themselves, or if they have any unusual mannerisms or habits.
Years ago. I was observing people on a ferry and noticed a young man who was fidgety and kept jangling his car keys. That image stuck with me and years later I used this image in my poem “Overflow” (from The Dragon & The Dragonfly):
Remember the boy on the ferry—
how he kept jangling his keys,
his uneasy rectitude
- Make up stories about strangers.
One of my favorite places before it closed was the Bonneville Resort. Besides its wonderful hot springs, it had a large yet cozy lobby with a gigantic fireplace. I loved to curl up in the oversized chairs to drink tea, write poetry, and watch people. One evening, I saw a couple come in that seemed like an odd match—he was a down-to-earth cowboy. She was a very high-class/east-coasty looking type. I made up a wild story in my mind about how they met and what they saw in each other.
When you find an interesting person, ask yourself questions—what is their background, where do they come from, what do they do now, what quirky habits might they have. This will open up your mind to ask more questions of the characters you’re creating.
- Interview your characters.
Get in a quiet place, close your eyes, and envision your character in the same room as you. Notice what they’re doing. The key is not to force them do or say anything but to just observe. Where are they in the room? Are they sitting or standing? What are they doing? What is their demeanor? Ask them if it’s okay to ask them a few questions. Never push your character but ask permission. If they’re being cooperative, ask some questions that you’d like answers to. For my character, Caitlin, in my fantasy novel, I might ask her: what was the most defining moment in your childhood? What do you think shaped you the most? How did it feel to lose your mother? The more questions we ask, the richer our characters will become.
As the saying goes, curiosity may have killed the cat but cultivating your curiosity will make you a better artist and a much happier and more interesting person.