A few years ago at a New York City book signing event for my first novel, an attendee asked me what I thought were the most important attributes an author needs in order to write good fiction. My answer: curiosity, observation, memory, and imagination. The theme of that novel, “CROSSPOINTS A Novel of Choice,” is that the choices we make in life create not only our future but also our very identity as unique and unrepeatable individuals.
Quite by accident, I recently came across this quote by George Bernard Shaw: “Life isn’t about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself.” My very theme!
Remembering my answer about novel writing — and the qualities I enumerated apply to all of the fine arts — this quote set me to realizing that the same four attributes for creating a meaningful work of fiction are equally operative in creating a meaningful real-life self.
Curiosity is natural to children because everything is new and wondrous to behold. To maintain this quality of inquisitiveness into adulthood requires choice and habit, easy for some, difficult for others, but rewarding to all by encouraging an openness and eagerness to discover new encounters, entities, and ideas. Many artists make this passage from childhood to adulthood without noticing that their curiosity remains intact because expanding techniques of craft and aesthetically expressing this adventure that is life and the beauties within it are too exciting a challenge and too much fun to give up for “normal” living. Every person, however, no matter what profession they ply can become a personal artist creating and celebrating their own soul by keeping the curiosity of childhood alive and active. This is the first step toward exploring the world and maintaining a watchful and questioning mind regarding the singularity and peculiarity of everything we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel both tangibly and emotionally. Curiosity hones all of our senses to a lifelong state of awareness concerning physical things outside our immediate surroundings and introspectively inside our own minds.
Observation comes next. As curiosity opens outer and inner avenues for investigation, observation trains our mind to pay attention to what we encounter. It causes a stimulating and perpetual state of alertness to appreciate the intricacy of all things large and small. Prolonged attentiveness to details that make up the whole of an experience, entity, or idea allows us to separate and understand the various parts that work together to become the sum of what initially drew us to a given subject out of curiosity. “Life is in the details” is not a shallow saying; it’s a program for dynamic living in the “now.” Furthermore, beyond momentary importance, observations are absolutely necessary to form memories, and memories are absolutely necessary for future delights and decisions.
Memory becomes our brain-and-body bank, holding our thoughts and experiences for future consultation, pleasure, and problem solving. When we see a photo of our favorite chocolate ice cream cone, youthful experiences come rushing into our mind along with salivation into our mouth. When we hear a certain passage of music, we can revisit loved ones long gone from earth but alive in our hearts. When we come across a new idea, we will measure it against information already stored mentally to determine its validity or inaccuracy, at the same time re-testing what we previously assimilated against fresh data. When we meet new people, we may assess the level of their desirability against the characteristics we cherish from previous relationships or have found to be antagonistic to our own principles and lifestyle. Life may be short but memory is long and serves us daily.
Finally: Open-ended, ever escalating, always renewing imagination. Imaging comes before doing. What is not first imagined in the mind cannot be realized in reality. Changing jobs? Building a new home? Moving to a different part of the world? Learning a new skill? Traveling to. . .where? Reading. . .what? Loving. . .whom? Becoming your best self? Who is that? By examining every aspect of our value system, our personality, our behavior, and our appearance as they are now and then imagining every existing, positive aspect to a higher power of excellence and achievement, we can be forever in a process of refinement, of becoming better, because humans need never be finished. We are not pre-programmed; we have free will to identify, evaluate, and act in accordance to our independently selected values in every area of our lives. Imagination is the path to self creation, self respect, and self love. This in turn results in pride of personhood, virtuous living, and happiness. The world and every individual in it are full of possibilities if the imagination is lively.
Curiosity leads to the invigorating adventure of discovery. Discovery leads to the infinite pleasure of observation. Observation leads to an abundant storehouse of memory. These three lead not only to a good fictional story but also to a fulfilling, originally designed real-life story and more: the imagined and then achieved self of one’s own creation, the greatest living, breathing artwork of all.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation. She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "Adamas." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.
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