A few years back, James Ryan gave a commencement speech at Harvard’s College of Education where he advised graduates to question everything. His first bit of wisdom was what he called, “Wait, What?”That’s when you’are telling your kids something, you throw in, “I need you to clean your room.” Your kid hears “blah, blah, blah, clean your room, blah, blah, blah.” Your kid says, “Wait, what?” The clean-your-room comment is the only thing to penetrate text brain. Ryan’s message was about listening to a message and questioning it.
Journalists and writers are sympathetic questioners. We want to know the answers. So we ask the questions.
A writers most important question could be “What happens if…?”
What happens if you put a plain-looking man in a group of “pretty people?” How can you make him stand out? Does he have the gift of gab? Is he uber-smart? Is he a billionaire? Or is he an ordinary guy who listens when people talk and asks questions to keep them talking?
A few years ago. my husband and I visited Blowing Rock, NC. We’d just checked into our motel and were off to find ice cream at our favorite local shop. Lying next to the gutter was a child’s sock. A single sock. I wondered, “where’s the other sock?” I didn’t want a prosaic answer like its mate was in the dryer, or a child pulled it off when Daddy wasn’t looking. I wanted it to be a clue dropped by a woman who’d been kidnapped. Or maybe it fell out of a sleeve of a well-dressed man whose wife didn’t iron his shirts. Clue: the sock will appear in a story later this year when the wrong sock is the clue to a missing child.
Then, there was the woman dressed like a gypsy at a Barns at Wolf Trap concert even more years ago than the sock. She sat to the side, lost in her own world, and shuffled a deck of Tarot cards. Was she going to tell her own fortune? Did she want to tell mine?
My friend, the late Sally Roseveare, could look around a room and find at least three things that would enhance her mysteries. Sometimes it was a mundane item that could be used to kill someone. Picture wire was one of her favorites, yet she never used it in a story. Or she’d wonder why a teaspoon was left on a chair even though no one was eating. Could it have traces of poison in it? And what about that crumpled paper? Did it have a written clue about where to find a murder weapon?
I look at people and wonder what their secrets are. We all have them. Do we wish we had been kinder to an elderly relative? Or to a child? Or do I wish I hadn’t spent our week’s grocery money on a necklace for my mom on Mother’s Day when I was eight? I do, but she was kind enough to hide her anger and worry about our diet for a week. She gave me the necklace years ago. I still have it.
Look around. You never know what you’ll find. Take tons of pictures of things that strike you. You never know when you’ll need that precise image.
What questions do you ask? What makes you curious?