I Want to Know What I *Don’t* Know

From The Newsroom, a TV show:

Will McAvoy: “I always wanted to have a full set of encyclopedias. Pull down ‘S’ off the shelf, flip to a page, read about, I don’t know, salic law and why a woman can’t inherit the French throne…”

Dr. Jack Habib: “You can google it.”

McAvoy: “That’s my point. You have to know what you’re looking for. You can’t browse for anything anymore.”[1]

From The Christian Science Monitor Weekly (CSMW):

“Higher education…is a mental journey. One morning a teaching assistant used E.M. Forester’s ‘A Passage to India’ to spark a memorable…discussion about syncretic religious systems….Sometime around then, a political science class detoured from theory onto the real-time 1972 presidential election. And the next day, another set of mental challenges and opportunities occurred. All of that and more is part of me…”[2]

Two completely different sources, two seemingly different ideas. But my interest, engaged by the Newsroom observation about our silent, yet monumental, shift from the world to “the world as revealed by google,” made me open to seeing the CSMW passage differently.

In these two passages, the speakers talk about a certain kind of insight gained from linking disparate sources of information together. These links create a third thing in us when we mix them with what we already know—that third thing is something entirely new, something we then use to create even further links. The key in both instances is intellectual exploration either without any specific aim in mind or by following another’s thoughts and listening to how those thoughts impact a group in real time, as new thoughts branch out from the original one and an entire tree grows where once there was just a sprout.

In my case, I had no specific aim in mind as I went through my day after watching The Newsroom except the links I’d made in my recognition of McAvoy’s comment as important. But I was thinking about what he’d said. I was wondering what I was missing when I turned solely to google to research my fiction.

When I came across the second passage, a light went off in my head. This, I said to a friend sitting next to me, is exactly what McAvoy was talking about missing. We had a very interesting discussion about that link I’d made, and this article was born.

See all these ideas, waiting to be linked together? You have to have them, first...

See all these ideas, waiting to be linked together? You have to have them, first…

All of us, whether for reasons of historical accuracy or just needing to know how, exactly, a lens registers light in the camera we’ve put in our character’s hand, do research for our books. All of us are linking things together—thoughts, pictures, feelings, facts, lies, truths, whatever—to bring depth to our stories. And as writers, we draw from and connect together everything we run into. How often do we turn to the internet to answer all our questions, and take it no further? What are we losing when we do that?

The CSMW source shows the vast importance of allowing for a kind of hodge-podge way of collecting information and the importance of talking about ideas with others. When I mentioned to a friend she might look up how a camera works, I thought of a professional photographer friend of mine. I imagined the amazing discussion we could have about cameras. I imagined the thematic and symbolic use I could put a camera to based on that discussion—because I know that’s what would come from it. Through exploring the actual thing, he would spark thoughts in my head, and I would make connections far beyond what he was saying. I could also take the discussion in those directions because he was right in front of me; I wasn’t limited to what was on a screen.

A friend once mentioned I should write an article about audio books. I could not for the life of me imagine writing an article about audio books—much less researching it. I imagined searching for statistics on sales, hunting for information about the industry…but, she said, what I want to hear about is how is it connecting in to telling stories aloud? I would never, not in a million years, have thought to google the kind of rich meta-consideration she mentioned as she stared off into space, her hand curved, as if cupping the voice of a beloved mother. Through our exploration of her idea, now creating links in my own head, was born the article Tell Me A Story.

Even looking for books to aid in research on the internet is limiting. Online retailers make links to other books they think may interest us. But how many of us have walked from the Romance section to the World Religions section, then on to the Manga section? And how often has that journey sparked an idea in us we never would have had otherwise? No online store is going to replicate that journey. It can’t.

When I’m researching online, I don’t know what I’m not looking for. I don’t know all the lines that radiate out from what I’m researching, and I don’t know what those lines connect to. What happens when we narrow ourselves down only to the terms we can search for? What happens when those terms invariably eliminate ideas and connections? What happens when we’re content with online research, and stop discussing what we’re looking for with others?

Great writing idea! Not a great communication/connection/inspiration idea...

Great writing idea! Not a great communication/connection/inspiration idea.

I wonder how much having the internet, and seemingly everything we could possibly want to learn at our fingertips, has impacted our ability to remain wide open when out in the world, to information in forms we’re not expecting. How much has it stopped conversations between writers, and conversations between us and others in general, because we feel we know as much as we need to about something?

As writers, our job is to make connections. I’m not saying we no longer do that because of the internet. And obviously we don’t always have time to discuss our ideas with others. But it would pay to look at how much the internet has made our worlds smaller and take some steps toward re-expanding them.

Exploration—connection—communication—this is writing. This is not reflected when we follow a singular journey imposed by search algorithms.

What we know, our connections, those are “a part of us.” Practice sharing, and receiving, those parts as much as possible.


[1] The Newsroom, HBO drama, Season 1, Episode 9, “The Blackout Part 2: Mock Debate.”

[2] John Yemma, Christian Science Monitor Weekly, Vol.106, Issue 28, 6/2/2014, p.5

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