Like most writers, I love learning new things and I’m not picky about either the subject matter or the source of information. If something is new to me, I’ll read everything I can about it, delighting in the way new information fills some planet-sized holes in my education. What I love about discovering something new is that it will inevitably lead to something else. Jump down a rabbit hole and who knows where you may end up. Starting to read a book about William Blake and the Industrial Revolution can lead to discovering how carbon paper was invented, which in turn can help you discover why the roads in Victorian London were covered with a variety of different materials and the impact that had on horses.
One curious by-product of this quest for knowledge is it can leave peculiar gaps. This is what happens when an amateur tackles a broad intellectual concept. Several years ago I read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time in which her detective becomes fascinated by the story of Richard the Third, and is convinced that the last Plantagenet was treated shabbily by history. Then, after he’s completed his research and reached his conclusion, he discovers that this ‘Richard was Innocent!’ notion was already well-established and fairly popular. Oh well, at least he had fun. I had fun reading the book and became equally fascinated with Richard.
Because I loved the TV series, and because I’m likely to learn something new about film-making, grammar, or politics, I’m addict to The West Wing Weekly podcast. Last week on it I heard my hero Aaron Sorkin confess that he, too, has planet-sized gaps in his knowledge. He talks about telling his daughter about a great new singer he’d just discovered. Daughter replies, “That’s Beyonce, dad.” He went on to describe ‘discovering’ Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and being astounded to learn the song was already hugely famous.
I can relate. I trip over information in the oddest ways. Very often it’s not obscure stuff, it’s just that I haven’t happened upon it yet. Like Sorkin (ha! That’s probably the only time I’ll be able to claim any sort of similarity with him), I find ‘gems’ and tell my daughter, giddy with my discoveries. She rolls her eyes and says, “Yes, mother, that’s Adele. How can you not know Adele?”
I don’t know, but I manage it somehow.
A few months ago I discovered Malcolm Gladwell. I’d read some articles about him and then, because of a link someone posted on The West Wing Weekly podcast site, I found Gladwell’s own podcast, which I’m now working my way through. Understand, we’re not talking about some obscure historian or economist. We’re talking Malcolm Gladwell, author of five New York Times bestsellers — The Tipping Point, Blink,Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath. The same Malcolm Gladwell who was named one of the 100 most influential people by TIME magazine and one of the Foreign Policy’s Top Global Thinkers.
When I said planet-sized holes in my knowledge, I wasn’t kidding.
Anyway, I’ve just started listening to his podcasts and in the one that waxes lyrical about Hallelujah, he mentions David Galenson and his unified theory of creativity. Galenson, an economist, has discovered that there are two broad types of creative genius. There are the child wonders like Picasso and Andy Warhol who burst on the world early and whose most esteemed pieces are those produced at the beginning of their careers. Then there are the Mark Twains and the Cézannes whose genius took time to ferment and who didn’t start to achieve excellence until they were well into middle age.
Now I have new books to read, new rabbit holes to explore, new ideas to formulate. I expect / hope Galenson will make reference to some other great mind and I will find another rabbit hole to explore. As you can see, diving down one rabbit hole often leads to many others.
As rabbit holes go, these ones are particularly exciting because they explore the nature of ideas and creativity. Things I am fascinated by.
I love chasing down various bits of information. It doesn’t matter too much what the topic is, art, literature, psychology, physics, history or anything at all really, bring it on.
Some people approach learning in a much more organised manner. They focus on one topic and can discuss it with huge understanding and insight. I love talking to such people, I enjoy learning from them, but I could never be like them. My range of interests is wide, but once I’ve grasped the basics I’m on to the next thing.
What does all this have to do with writing?
Well, it’s not a coincidence that great minds all link together. As one great mind suggests a theory, that theory connects with another great mind who takes the theory in another direction. In the middle of all of this is the writer, taking what she needs from each and forming her own ideas. If she is lucky, one or more of those ideas will culminate in a story.
While burrowing in one of my rabbit holes one day I happened upon the story of the Necropolis Railway. This was a dedicated line that was built to transport the dead on special trains from London to the city’s outskirts for burial. What writer could fail to be fascinated by the possibilities. I got a story out of that called, not surprisingly, The Necropolis Railway (which appears in Before Baker Street). Reading an article about a musician who was disowned by his family for following his dreams led to a new story (not yet published) called And Righteousness Shall Look Down.
Sometimes the discoveries you make in your reading connect with events in your life. A documentary about Ireland’s fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Uprising led to memories of being bullied in school. Those two topics merged and became a story, too.
Writers need to keep their minds and their eyes open. Stories are everywhere but you have to watch out for them. If you aren’t paying enough mind they’ll slink away and wait for someone else to write them. Or worse, they may never be written at all.
I love that there is so much for me to learn. It ensures I’ll never be bored — even if it does mean I’ll always have some planet-sized holes in my knowledge. That’s OK, though. The act of discovery is worth as much as the information. I have so many more rabbit holes to explore. Who knows, maybe one of them will explain what a Kardashian is.
The West Wing Weekly podcast: The West Wing Weekly (episode 3:22 Posse Comitatus includes Sorkin discussing Beyonce, Hallelujah, and much more.)
Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast: Revisionist History
David Galenson on the unified theory of creativity is summed up in this Wired article: What Kind of Genius are You? but you should consider checking out Galenson’s books, too, if the subject interests you.