Friday, January 7, 2011

The Two Traits Every Writer Needs

Curiosity and imagination are two sides of the same coin: One is the unquenchable thirst for knowledge; the other is the process by which we create something entirely new out of that knowledge. It has been said that there is no such thing as a new idea, that everything that exists is already known. If that is true, then curiosity impels us to search for what is known, and imagination sees it in a new and unique form.

It's hard to imagine how or why one might choose to be a writer, especially a freelance writer, without this trait. What would be the incentive, if not to absorb information and reconfigure it in a way that others can enjoy and absorb as well? Without it, this chosen way of life becomes merely a job - a way to earn a living - and for most of us, that's not what it's about.

Curiosity cannot be created or taught when it doesn't exist, but it can be nurtured even when only a tiny spark of it exists. If you've ever begun a sentence with the words, "I wonder ..." or followed the thread of a thought around in your head to see where it would take you, or become lost in a subject other people consider boring, or found yourself asking a million questions of someone you've just met, you've got the spark. Now, all that's necessary is to let it catch fire. Here are some ways to fan the flames:

Don't be satisfied with just enough research or just enough information to complete the assignment. Keep digging, keep analyzing, keep seeking a deeper understanding of the material. Eventually, you'll run out of time, you'll run out of sources, or your sixth sense will tell you that one more fact will be one fact too many. That's when you know you've done all you can do, and it's time to write.

Get involved with your topic. Care about it, make it personal, invest yourself. Believe it or not, this will not compromise your integrity as a writer; it will enhance it. If you care, the message will ring true and the words will come alive; if you don't, the reader will sense - often without knowing why - that something is missing.

Think of everything you learn as a thread in a tapestry. If you stick with it long enough, no matter what kind of writing you do, patterns begin to emerge. You'll find that no idea exists in isolation and that every piece of knowledge is inexplicably linked to every other piece. The more you learn, the more obvious those links will become. New ideas combined with long-forgotten snippets of information give birth to deeper insights, which, in turn, become new threads in the pattern.

Tapping into the imagination is not something only novelists, poets, and promotional writers do. It is something every good writer does, consciously or instinctively. Imagination is our secret weapon, our special ability to put an original spin on virtually anything, no matter how tired or hackneyed it may seem. A good writer looks at the assignment, the raw data, the blank page, and sees something no one else sees - a unique perspective, a hidden pattern, the very heart of the matter. Like combining chemical elements, in go bits and pieces of information, impressions, and interpretations; out comes something completely new, a one of a kind.

If curiosity can be nourished, like a tiny plant, is that also true of imagination? Why do some people view the world through a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes, while others see it in black-and-white, straight lines that go from here to there? Can imagination be created out of the raw material of our minds, or is it something one has or doesn't have, like blue eyes?

If we are to believe many of the great writers, imagination is part of our human birthright. If the spark exists, the hidden light is just waiting to shine. What turns an analytical thinker into an imaginative one? Try these suggestions.

Open your mind to other ways of looking at things. If someone else suggests a different perspective, don't dismiss it out of hand. Delve, explore, examine. Turn it over in your mind. Add to it. Add it to the mix of ideas on the table.

Don't be satisfied with your first take on anything. Don't be in a hurry to get on with it and hit the computer. Unless you're on a killer deadline, step back and give it some air. See what else comes up. Walk around it (figuratively), and chances are you'll see it from a different angle.

Don't settle for the way you've always done it. If you usually surf the Web or use the business library, find an expert to interview. If you plunge into writing the minute you finish your research, try giving yourself a day to read and absorb your notes and sleep on it before you sit down to write. If you polish every sentence as you go, try stream-of-consciousness writing. Just changing your habits will stretch the limits of your imagination.

Take time to do nothing. Call it meditation, daydreaming, or kickback time. Carve out some time at least once a week for you. Go to the park, the zoo, the country. Take a walk, a bike ride, or a drive. Let your mind roam wherever it chooses to go. The idea is to slow down the compulsive thinking/doing mind and give it a break. Just imagine what could come out of such an afternoon!