I was stopped at a red light while driving my daughter to preschool. Next to me was one of those public wastelands, a strip of land between roads that served no purpose but to host weeds and give a municipal gardener one more thing to mow twice a year. It was covered in bright green spring grass. Too coarse to be a proper lawn grass, it still seemed too lush to be a native meadow grass. I wondered, ‘Is there such a thing as a weed lawn grass?’ and then wondered that I wondered. Two weeks ago, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed the grass. I would have been too absorbed in the inner monologue dictating my schedule for the day, and how the red light might affect it. But after Iceland Writers Retreat, the grass not only caught my attention, it piqued my curiosity. I blame Susan Orlean.
One of the things I like best about her writing is the open minded way she approaches subjects that most people would write off as boring. It’s her genuine curiosity that can turn a story about a trailer park or a taxidermy convention into an exploration rather than a satire.
In person, Susan reminded me of Santa Claus from Rise of the Guardians. Bear with me. I don’t mean that she in any way resembled a member of the Russian mafia. I expected Rise of the Guardians to be a commercial hack job, but when forced to watch it found it to be an entertaining story about the service that mythical characters provide to childhood. Santa Claus represented wonder. In one scene he holds up a nesting doll of himself; the tiny doll at the center has gigantic eyes, to show how he continually views the world with wonder. And to me, Susan Orlean seems like an amalgam of this wide-eyed Santa Claus and the demographic he serves, an old child exploring the world in constant amazement. Her workshop paid a lot of attention to research; how she digs into details that don’t have obvious relevance to her primary subject, and also allows herself the freedom to take a step back and look for the big picture, too. First and foremost, she allows her curiosity to drive her pursuit of stories.
In her workshop, Geraldine Brooks told an outlandish story about a woman she saw on a daytime talk show. The woman was videotaping her boyfriend as he reeled in a swordfish. The flipped over the head of the boyfriend and stabbed the woman in the chest. She only survived because the swordfish pierced her silicone breast implant. Geraldine said the best fiction starts with an implausible truth. To find a great story, she recommends looking for the fact that doesn’t make sense; the implausible truth that makes you ask, “How could that happen?” Look for the curious silicone swordfish moment.
In Cosmos last week, Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “The genius of science is asking questions about what everyone else takes for granted.”
In his workshop at Iceland Writers Retreat, James Scudamore warned against paying too much attention to your themes. Instead, he said, “Good literature asks questions.”
Stories are everywhere, even in the most unlikely places. A trailer park or a parking strip can hold the implausible truth that leads to something fascinating, if daily preoccupations haven’t dampened a curious mind.