Why I Write

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When people ask why I became a writer, I often quip that writing is a disease that you catch early, and that it caught me and I haven’t yet been cured. After three dozen published books and almost as many produced television scripts, plus a ballet, a comic book, plays, films, magazine articles, and op-ed columns, and ten times that many rejection letters, I still maintain that writing is a disease and the only one that’s a lot of fun to have.

But there’s a deeper answer to the question of why I write, and I’m beginning to see that it also ties together many of the myriad things I’ve worked on in my life: curiosity.

I began writing seriously in college while pursuing a major in psychology. For one advanced psych course, I needed to create an experiment and carry it out. The subject I chose was the power of curiosity.

1 15 Number PuzzleI solicited about a dozen volunteers, whom I divided into two groups, experimental and control. I asked individuals in both groups, with whom I worked one person at a time, to add columns of numbers, laterally and horizontally, on paper. While the “subject” did his or her sums, I played with a number type of puzzle right in front of the subject, but never managed to finish the puzzle. After an individual finished each page full of numbers, I’d check the answers for accuracy and speed of completion. While doing my checking, I’d place the puzzle cube within the reach of the Group A volunteers, so that they could play with it while waiting for me – the cube was really tough, impossible to complete in the minute or so time I allotted. When I checked the papers of the people in Group B, however, I placed the cube out of reach and out of sight. Sure enough, this produced a measurable result.

Group A, whose curiosity about the cube was roused by their too-brief-to-solve-it intervals of playing with it, rushed through the next numbers challenge in order to return to playing with the cube. They managed to do their next sums significantly faster and more accurately than Group B did.

I guess that I was so impressed by the edge that curiosity provided to Group A that I honed my own inquisitiveness to investigate and interpret the world.

Eric HofferThe thing about curiosity is, we all have it. Poor teachers and tough life experiences beat it out of many of us, but some people do manage to channel their curiosity into working for them. More people should. Curiosity is like talent in that regard; on this point I agree with the subject of my recent biography, Eric Hoffer, the “longshoreman philosopher,” who insisted that his fellow dockworkers on the San Francisco waterfront were “lumpy with talent.” Hoffer wondered why more of them had not written books, as he had.

Here are four more examples that demonstrate how I’ve used my curiosity on widely varying projects, over the years.

I was making my first one-hour documentary, CHILDREN OF POVERTY, whose brief was to track how poverty affected the lives of children born into New York City families in which the parents and grandparents were desperately poor. Visiting one of the three families that had agreed to let our NBC cameras into their lives, for a scheduled interview with the mother, I had lots of questions prepared for her. But when I realized that three of her boys had stayed home from school that day, I became curious. Why were they home? One said it was because his class was going on a trip and he did not have the fifty cents fee. The second said it was because he had grown out of his shoes and had nothing else to put on his feet – classmates had been teasing him about his holey shoes. The third, the oldest, had been beaten up by a gang and did not want to go to school with a big bruise on his face. The 87 seconds of uncut footage that the eliciting of those stories produced became the heart of a film that won many awards.

Around The Block by Tom ShachtmanI was in the midst of researching a book to be called AROUND THE BLOCK, about the economic life of a single block in Manhattan over the course of a year, and was interviewing a man who owned a small business that did bulk mailings for clients such as the NBA and the Museum of Natural History. The interview took place at six in the morning – the only time he would agree to see me. On his desk I noticed photographs of lizards – and my curiosity forced me to ask about them, since they seemed so out of place. “I’m an amateur herpetologist,” he announced, and went on to tell a heartbreaking story about his early interest in science, which had been derailed by the need to make money for a family but never quelled. He was so good at herpetology that when reptiles were confiscated at JFK airport, near his home, the customs authorities called him in to identify the species. Such personal stories behind the facades of enterprises as varied as rival plumbing supply depots, a dog groomer, an antique store, an eyewear shop run by an ex-high school science teacher, a Korean-owned wine store, and a boutique gym, made what could have been a boring book into a lively one, according to some nice reviews.

Beachmaster by Tom ShachtmanHaving decided that I hadn’t taken enough advantage of my own early training in science — my bachelor of science in experimental psychology – I decided to write a short novel about a deep-diving sea lion, to whom I had given the name of my then-seven-year old son because of my son’s reluctance to put his head under water while swimming. Wanting to expand the story, I became curious about sea mammals, and located a graphic of the swimming silhouettes of many different ones. With the swimmers seen in profile, the graphic showed how remarkably alike were otters, polar bears, whales, dolphins, orcas, walruses, manatees, seals, leopard seals, and sea lions. They must be distant cousins, I reasoned, descended from the same ur-creature. Then, one evening, I looked at the sky and realized that the big constellation of thirteen stars was not a bear, as we bipeds have been taught, but a giant sea lion – maybe that ur-sea lion! — and I had the gist of the short novel, BEACHMASTER, since published in four languages, and two sequels, WAVEBENDER and DRIFTWHISTLER.

Curiosity is not merely inquisitiveness but an attempt to amass knowledge in order to reach better understanding. That came home to me, twice, as I researched and wrote a book about the history of low-temperature physics – a field that had been neglected even in the mid-17th century, when Robert Boyle did some pioneering experiments and lamented that research into what makes things cold was not a hot subject. I wanted to begin the narrative with an alchemist’s attempt to air-condition Westminster Abbey in 1620; there were no records of how it was done, but, curious, I found enough hints in contemporary chemistry, hydraulics, and engineering to reconstruct the deed. Russell Donnelly - Physics - University of OregonThe book’s central battle, which recounts the attempts of rivals James Dewar in London and Heike Kammerlingh Onnes in Leiden to reach down the temperature scale very close to “absolute zero,” took place at the turn of the 20th century. (Onnes would be awarded the Nobel in physics in 1913 for winning the “race.”) The two scientists were known to have corresponded, but whether the letters had survived was an open question. My curiosity led me, after quite a search, to the library of the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden, where Onnes’ original apparatus is displayed. His letters were not properly catalogued, but I persevered and found the ones to and from Dewar. As I had sensed they would, the letters provided new insight into two fascinating scientific egos, and I quoted them in the book, to good effect. When low-temperature expert Dr. Russ Donnelly of the University of Oregon, whom I had asked to review the manuscript prior to publication, read these sections, which told him things about his field’s history that he hadn’t known before, he came on board as the book’s science advisor. Then, with Russ as principal investigator, we obtained a princely grant from the National Science Foundation, and another from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, to underwrite a two-hour documentary based on my book, ABSOLUTE ZERO AND THE CONQUEST OF COLD. The program was broadcast in 2008 on PBS, on the BBC, and on French and German television.