Curiosity is a vital attribute for successful teachers and students, and for writers and readers as well. It can motivate us to learn and to invent: to pose questions, pursue answers, devise alternatives, refine our cognitive skills, and imagine fictional stories that take us beyond the small circle of self-absorption in which we often crouch.
So it was appropriate for the English Teachers Association of Western Australia to choose ‘Curiosity’ as the theme for its recent state conference, and to arrange the final plenary session as a conversation between two writer-educators, Josephine Wilson and myself, about the ‘curious journeys’ that we have undertaken during our careers. Tanya Dalziell skilfully facilitated the session and posed stimulating questions. I won’t presume to summarise the various interesting things Josephine and Tanya said, but what follows is a sketch of a few of my own thoughts on the topic.
We were asked, to begin with, what choices we’ve had to make along the way and where these choices have led. I said that, for my own part, I’ve tried to avoid either/or choices. Having always wanted both to teach literature and to produce it, I’ve done my best to sustain the two kinds of activity simultaneously. There are times when one or the other may take priority; but in general, over the years, I’ve juggled them together as best I can. Making a choice between an involvement in literary creativity and an involvement in teaching (or teaching-related work such as curriculum reform projects) is something I’ve resisted.
Choosing isn’t everything. Important turning points in one’s life sometimes just happen without much considered choice. Looking back, it’s tempting to see them all as purposeful, shaped by bold decisions – even, grandly, as constituting a kind of heroic quest, in the course of which one has bravely surmounted obstacles and survived ordeals, driven onwards by unshakeable belief in the chosen goal of vocational fulfilment.
But my curious journey has actually been less like a quest than a kind of peregrination, a wandering, meandering way of getting along. American writer Denise Levertov has a poem called Overland to the Islands that sums this up perfectly. It begins “Let’s go—much as that dog goes, / intently haphazard.” And it ends with the following lines:
Under his feet
rocks and mud, his imagination, sniffing,
engaged in its perceptions—dancing
edgeways, there’s nothing
the dog disdains on his way,
keeps moving, changing
pace and approach but
not direction – every step an arrival.
Similarly my own progress (not quite the right word; more apt is Samuel Beckett’s “gress”) has been a medley of step-by-step discoveries, not a series of conscious purposeful career choices. Most of the big changes and commitments were unplanned. They came from other people’s suggestions or popped up as digressive distractions while my canine imagination was fully absorbed in just sniffing around. That kind of “intently haphazard” wayfaring, I believe, has something to recommend it.
Other questions that arose in our conversation were about the specific nature and extent of the curiosity that a writer or teacher should aim to nurture. What exactly do we want our readers and students to be curious about, above all? And should there be ethical constraints on our curiosity?
It may seem obvious that a primary objective ought to be developing curiosity about lives that are different from our own. Certainly that’s important, and has potential ethical value if it fosters empathy. Yet it’s not an end in itself, at least where literary experience is concerned, as I was reminded recently when reading John Banville’s brilliant novel The Untouchable. Its narrator and main character, Victor Maskell, makes this comment on an acquaintance who writes fiction: “He was genuinely curious about people – the sure mark of the second-rate novelist.” At first sight Maskell’s witticism may seem merely to reflect his own sardonic character, but I think it’s worth pondering. For while a keen interest in what makes people tick is part of a good writer’s necessary equipment, it’s not sufficient. Many a person, despite being genuinely and intensely curious about others, will lack what is required to turn that curiosity into patterns of words that are well worth reading. The first-rate writer must above all have a burning curiosity about the medium of language itself – its semantic resources, its capacity to convey a great range of thoughts and feelings in precise and memorable ways.
Similarly, what the teacher of English needs to develop more than anything else is a love of language in all its varieties, and a deep understanding of how words shape every aspect of our lives – sometimes working negatively to constrain or distort our perceptions but potentially working to enlarge them.
So if I’m conducting a writing workshop (whether in a school classroom or with a mature-age group), I like to focus on details of language – stylistic nuances, subtle connotations, careful selection and sequencing of words. All sorts of things may serve as an initial stimulus – a physical object, a remembered scene, a photograph, etc., and these starting points can generate creatively a long string of productive questions – but my main aim is help students to concentrate their attention on the expressive capacities of their medium: the best words in the best order, as Coleridge put it.
Do we always have the “right” to be curious, or should we recognise ethical limits to curiosity? My view is that, in principle, the boundaries that may need to be respected in some real-life situations (an anthropologist encountering unfamiliar cultural practices, a neighbour itching to intrude on next-door privacy) should not apply to fiction writers, who are, after all, in the business of being transgressively voyeuristic, persistently nosey about how other people see the world. I reject the possessive kind of identity politics that wants to fence off some sections of experience and make them no-go zones for inquisitive writers who don’t belong to the particular group in question but want to imagine (and help readers imagine) what it might be like to do so. Of course it’s a presumptuous enterprise, and fraught with peril. I wrote more about this in a previous blog post.
But what do you think about these matters, dear reader? I’m curious…