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?