Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It's Good to be Nosy

It’s Good to Be Nosy

It’s good to be nosy. When I say this in schools, there’s always one teacher who looks uncomfortable. He’d rather I’d use the word curious. (Yes, it is, for some reason, usually a he.)

But I am nosy. Always have been. Always will be. I am a people watcher, an eavesdropper. If I could get away with it, I’d read other people’s mail, ask strangers in the airport probing questions (o.k. I have done that once in a while).

I wish I knew all about you, yes, you reading this post.

I don’t know if my nosiness is a result of nature or nurture, but I can tell you either way I got it from my mom. Nosiness was my mother’s milk, and I am glad for it. It made me a writer, made me someone who loves, loves, loves to do research. It was one of my mother’s greatest gifts to me. (Though I did suffer from her nosiness as a teenager when she read my journal--just because I had left it out. Who knew THAT was a rule? I sure didn’t--until that day. Oy, what she found out. Don’t ask.)

Here are some of my most significant childhood memories:

*Sitting in a hotel lobby with Mom, watching the people, and talking about them. What’s his story? Hers? Are those two a couple? Where do you think they live? What do they do? What is with that hat?

*Sitting in the kitchen during family gatherings while the women cooked, making myself as invisible as possible so they would keep gossiping. On different occasions I learned: my cousin M. had set the cat’s tail on fire and his mother, Crazy Aunt B., had just laughed; my father’s cousin Hymie, whom I adored, hadn’t died of a heart attack but had jumped out of the window at 80 because he was bereft at losing his long-time love—whom he lived with! But wasn’t married to! (It’s mine; you can’t have it.) Sitting in the kitchen also gave me practical information, of course: how to separate eggs, roast a chicken, what hormones can do…

*Sitting half-way down the steps during one of my parents’ parties. Is that how grown-ups act when kids aren’t around? Why?

Writing fiction is about looking at people and asking what makes them tick. Writing biography is exactly the same, only you can’t make anything up. Writing all non-fiction is about asking questions you don’t have the answers to. So you have to do research to find out. For that all it takes is being nosy.

When you do research you ask yourself, “What do I know and what do I need to know?” At the beginning of a project, the answer to the first part of the question is (in increasing level of panic) “not much, next to nothing, certainly not enough!” and the answer to the second part is, “a whole lot, so much, everything!” But if you just let your natural nosiness work for you, finding out more is often easy—and always fun. It’s like a treasure hunt, with clue leading to clue. Really it's like sitting at that kitchen table, only you don’t have to be invisible. You get to ask the questions. You get to be nosy.

Being nosy has helped me when I’ve needed to overcome shyness to interview someone (no, I don’t ask inappropriate questions). Being nosy has kept me going through rough patches in writing. For example, when I couldn’t find the hook of, say, a biography, I just needed to delve deeper into my subject’s private life. Why didn’t Barbara McClintock get along with her mother? Because Mrs. McClintock gave Barbara away for months when she was a toddler!

Why did Charles and Emma have one more child even though she was so old to have a baby…Oh! I found a letter Charles wrote complaining that Emma was “neglecting him.”

Reading primary sources—letters, journals, diaries—is heaven to a nosy person. Reading primary sources is a fantastic way for a writer to get great material, unique insights, and, we hope, give the world valuable new information.

And it’s completely legitimate! And legal! And moral!

Unlike reading a person’s journal just because she left it lying around….

So. Be honest. How nosy are you?

11 comments:

Jeannine said...

I loved so much in this post! Of course the nosiness part (and, yes, I too have seen men squirm around the words "nosy" or "gossip," in the sense of that word that craves a hunger for detail. I loved how you showed the research process as one of asking and answering questions, while also opening it up as you do in this post. And poor Barbara McClintock. I hadn't known about her mom, and now I must go read...Thank you! Jeannine Atkins

Mark Herr said...

Learning is really all about wanting to know more. But to me the best learning is when you view it as more fun than work. I'm nosy with an imagination, so I think that is why I prefer writing fiction, but I do admit facts do have such great stories to tell. I have been known to spend hours on Wikipedia bouncing from related link to related link.

Melissa Stewart said...

I'd be interested in how this specifically relates to Charles and Emma, which I just finished reading. Really liked it!

Deborah Heiligman said...

Melissa, Thanks for asking about how it relates to CHARLES AND EMMA. I wrote that book using primary sources almost completely. I read a two-volume book of Emma and her family's letters. I read Charles's secret notebooks, and many of his letters (though not all 7,000 of them!). During the course of the research Emma's diaries were also published on line, and so I got to "snoop" in those, making connections between what Charles was working on and the brief notes she wrote in her datebook/diary. I also could look at what she wrote and what letters Charles wrote at the same time. It was a lot of puzzle pieces I put together--pieces of their private life and private thoughts. It was a dream!

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

I get to read other people's juicy personal letters and diaries all the time too when I do research, and I LOVE using this particular kind of primary source material so much that I regularly feature direct quotes in my artwork inside of talk balloons. Reading this amazing stuff is kinda like secretly taking the roof off of someone's house and peeking in. Besides, it's so much more fun that reading somebody's dry version of history. For example, instead of just writing that fresh water used to run out on ships during long voyages, I once used this quote: "The water is becoming BAD. I don't mind it much. I have a way of killing the bugs before drinking them."

Jonathan said...

Love your blog! I just came across a quote that made me think of what you say about being nosy:

"Being a reporter is as much a diagnosis as a job description." Anna Quindlen

Susan E. Goodman said...

I have to say that many friends/family members get annoyed at all my questions, but I can't help it. Finding those answers is why I love my job. I also love the idea that you can have the most obscure question in the world and there is someone somewhere who has spend his/her entire work life finding the answer to it. Now if only we can find her...

Anonymous said...

This is Deborah. My friend Elvira Woodruff asked me to post this for her as she tried to post & it wouldn't let her. As you will see by her last two lines, I have not edited the comment at all.

Great insight into what compels a writer to write. And so well put. I also loved how you shared your enthusiasm for the research. It's the same for writers of historical fiction. Research is usually my favorite part of the job. Once I was writing about a girl dreaming of escaping a London workhouse in the 19th century. I thought I'd have her at a window and looking out at the city, dreaming of her escape. But then I had the urge to dig a little deeper and get a little nosier. What were those workhouses really like? I did some more digging around and lo and behold came upon this little gem of information- There was so much disease in London in the early 1880's the notion went around that sunlight carried disease! So they actually whitewashed over all the workhouse windows in the city! Now when I write my girl's scene,the workhouse is much darker inside, and I have her use her fingernail to scrape away some of the paint from the window before she can look out. I'm sure readers just breezed over that little detail, but for me, I was high for a day on it! Sometimes I think we have much more fun writing these books of ours than readers can ever have reading them (on a good day, when we aren't biting nails and pulling out our hair). Thanks again for nailing the nosiness thing. And you weren't exaggerating. You are by far the nosiest person I know .Elvira Woodruff

Mark Herr said...

Now I want to read Elvira's book...

Deborah Heiligman said...

Roz, who said that ("The water is becoming BAD. I don't mind it much. I have a way of killing the bugs before drinking them.")? What book of yours is it in?

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Deb, the quote that says "...I have a way of killing the bugs before drinking them" came from my book GOLD FEVER; TALES FROM THE CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH, and it was written by a guy named Richard Lunt Hale. I found it at the Smithsonian's American History Museum library many moons ago along with a whole treasure trove of letters from people in clipper ships headed out of New York City to San Francisco via Cape Horn.