When New York Times bestselling author and award-winning sportswriter Joe Posnanski stood before a full house during the 2019 Booklovers’ Bash last weekend to share the primary motivation for writing his newest book, “The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini,” most people didn’t expect him to admit that he knew nothing about the magician when he settled on his subject matter.
It’s far more common for an author to write about a topic on which he or she is an expert; “write what you know” is usually the first piece of advice experienced writers share with aspiring ones.
Posnanski chose Houdini precisely for the opposite reason. Because his entire career has focused on writing about sports, he wanted to reignite his sense of wonder and curiosity by learning something new. This paradigm shift not only led him on a three-year research adventure about all things Houdini, he successfully regained a sense of wonder threatened by routine and predictability.
Wonder has been on my mind in the days since. It’s a powerful concept. A sense of wonder is defined in part by the Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction as the feeling of awakening or awe triggered by an expansion of one’s awareness of what is possible.
It’s the “whoa” you whisper to yourself when something amazing stops you in your tracks; the curiosity that leads you down a rabbit hole of online clicking that makes you forget all the other stuff you should be doing. Almost without fail, a sense of wonder leads to a sense of appreciation for other people’s great ideas, for the magic of nature, for the ability to challenge boundaries.
Its close cousin is the self-fulfilling prophecy, because once we realize what’s possible, it’s much easier to step up and into that new level of possibility, too.
I have to say, feeling inspired by and appreciative for the ingenuity of humans and the power of nature seems a heck of a lot better – and more productive – than feeling outraged by the inexplicability of humans and nature.
In this spirit, I conducted a non-scientific experiment on myself. I paid more attention to things that elicited my sense of wonder, and I allowed time to really enjoy the feeling of awe that followed. I was interested to know how this shift in perspective would affect my outlook. A few things that made the list:
The Peacherine Ragtime Orchestra – This Baltimore-based ragtime band performed at the Cheyenne Civic Center on Wednesday evening, and while I expected to enjoy it, I did not predict how much I would enjoy it. The 12-member orchestra was technically masterful in every way, but it was the fact they played the original live soundtracks, complete with sound effects, for three silent movies starring Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton that astounded me.
I realized in the first five minutes that I’ve never experienced a silent movie properly – I’d been doing it all wrong. I’ve seen a few of the most famous ones, but I’ve never heard a live ragtime orchestra accompany a silent movie cue for cue, the way it was intended to be shown. Seen this way, the movies were actually laugh-out-loud funny and far more sophisticated than I had ever given them credit for. My heart expanded a size in appreciation for a nearly extinct art form I thought I understood, but clearly did not.
Rats Driving Cars – If you haven’t heard the news stories this week about the University of Richmond researchers who trained actual rats to drive actual tiny cars designed specifically for them, go look up a video clip right now. This successful project will lead to greater understanding of how learning affects – and is affected by – emotional health. Only someone with a well-developed sense of wonder and an even bigger imagination could dream up rats driving cars in the name of science.
Eliud Kipchoge – Kenyan long-distance runner Eliud Kipchoge ran a sub-two-hour marathon this month. That translates to running a mile under four minutes … 26 times in a row. Yes, he had super-shoes designed by Nike just for this feat. Yes, a world-class team of pacemakers ran with him the entire way. The naysayers said nay because of those conditions, but 26.2 miles is still an awfully long distance to put one foot in front of the other that fast. Human endeavor: whoa.
November is fast approaching; with the season of gratitude it brings, I encourage you to start your own “sense of wonder” list. Your appreciation for what’s possible – especially when it’s unexpected – will grow, and you just might find yourself in awe (and gratitude) a little more often. It’s a good feeling.
Elizabeth Dillow is a writer, photographer and graphic designer in Cheyenne. Also on her list of wonders is Manny Ramirez’s home run swing, an old HBO show titled “The Neistat Brothers” and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. She can be reached at email@example.com.