Voiceworks #106 ‘Motive’ editorial
By Lucy Adams
When I decided to start watching The West Wing on the night of the US presidential election I was aware I was indulging in fantasy—what better antidote to the latest of this year’s global calamities than the nostalgic embrace of the gentle, optimistic Democratic administration that never was—but I wasn’t prepared for the utter absurdity of this scene.
Sam Seaborn, deputy White House communications director and chief squarejawed man, emerges from his office with a bundle of paper in hand and announces, ‘This draft is done.’ The communications bullpen is full of twenty-odd federal government employees. They all stop what they’re doing. They put down their beige landlines, swivel away from their chunky desktops displaying Windows 98, and they applaud him.
For most writers, your first draft is unlikely to garner congratulations from a room full of sycophantic public servants. If you’re anything like me, finishing a draft looks more like this: you are surrounded by at least eight mugs or, alternatively, one unspeakably putrid mug you refuse to clean for fear of upsetting the fragile ecosystem that has developed inside. Most likely, you abandoned pants some hours ago, deeming an oversized T-shirt (perhaps bearing the cover art of Ja Rule’s The Last Temptation) sufficient to absorb the orange juice dripping from your chin. There is no-one to applaud you.
There are very few sources of external validation for emerging writers, and even fewer situations in which you’re likely to receive applause. Sometimes you get it at readings, festival panels or publication launches—but never for a first draft. There’s no recognition for incremental progress or quietly doing the work—for redrafting, for refining your argument or experimenting with a new form. And for the vast majority of days where we don’t receive external validation, motivation needs to come from somewhere else.
According to Charan Ranganath, a psychologist at the University of California, ‘There’s this basic circuit in the brain that energizes people to go out and get things that are intrinsically rewarding’. It’s activated by, among other things, eating, earning money, cocaine, winning—and curiosity. For many years, curiosity posed a conundrum for analyses of behaviour based on rational choice. We demand more information than we can use, and often we’re most attracted to information that confers no extrinsic benefit other than the satisfaction of curiosity itself.
Animal curiosity studies—of the kind referenced by Angus Dalton in this issue—point to curiosity as a basic drive: rats will endure shocks to explore novel stimuli, and monkeys are willing to overcome physical barriers over an extended period of time merely to hold open a window that presents a glimpse of the laboratory. We now know this is because of dopamine—the neurotransmitter that regulates the brain’s pleasure and reward centres. Curiosity gets us high. It’s a critical motivating force for behaviour.
But curiosity isn’t always a pleasant experience. The pursuit of knowledge is rarely as neat and capped-off as when Poirot identifies a murderer in exquisite detail (‘…how ironic that it was ultimately the catapult that gave you away, Monsieur Catapult’). For young people especially, the hunger for knowledge, new experiences and novel stimuli will always outstrip our capacity to satisfy it.
At Voiceworks we keep an eye out for writing that demonstrates this profound curiosity. We discuss this a lot, particularly in relation to nonfiction. Most of the nonfiction we receive at Voiceworks is memoir, a form where the relationship between writing what you know and exploring what you don’t can be particularly tricky to navigate—but it can still be inquiring, both inwardly and outwardly.
In ‘My Bung Leg and Me’, Jack Francis Musgrave decided to write about talipes (better known as clubfoot) because he’d never read anything about it before and he was fundamentally curious. Jack was uniquely qualified to write about the topic, having been born with the condition, but he didn’t rely on personal experience alone: he conducted research, he posed difficult questions, and he experimented with structure and voice. Jack died before he was able to see the piece published. We are deeply saddened, and honoured to print his work in our pages. Jack had never been paid for his writing before, he’d never appeared on a festival panel, but what he did have was far more valuable: a deep love of writing and editing, and an unrestrained desire to learn.
After what’s been an awful year—or for us at Voiceworks, two awful years—we don’t have a team of idealistic White House staffers to set the world right. But our curiosity, something notoriously lacking in the president-elect, gives us an evolutionary advantage: the more we know about the world, the more likely we are to endure its calamities. What’s more, we recognise the quiet, invisible work you do, with every new draft, to muster this curiosity. And while we can’t greet each one with applause, we hope you’re rewarded by the process of inquiry that got you there.