At any time, but perhaps particularly in a world of pandemic, economic and social unrest and ecological threat, writers need to stay with the questions. So often we are eager for the answers, but the truth is that uncertainty and messiness are integral to life. And any quest worth its salt is about the journey not the facts.
I know one thing, that I know nothing.
Socrates is supposed to have said.
And in fact, however much we know, the unknowable is always going to outweigh it. This can feel terrifying and overwhelming. It’s natural to crave security and answers. And yet learning to live joyfully with the questions is also liberating.
In science, it’s the unanswered questions that are the most fascinating, In Ignorance: How it Drives Science, Stuart Firestein points out that the questions and the curiosity are so much more important than the answers:
Are we too enthralled with the answers these days? Are we afraid of questions, especially those that linger too long? We seem to have come to a phase in civilization marked by a voracious appetite for knowledge, in which the growth of information is exponential and, perhaps more important, its availability easier and faster than ever.
Life is full of facts and answers, and yet, Firestein insists:
The facts serve mainly to access the ignorance… Scientists don’t concentrate on what they know, which is considerable but minuscule, but rather on what they don’t know…. Science traffics in ignorance, cultivates it, and is driven by it. Mucking about in the unknown is an adventure; doing it for a living is something most scientists consider a privilege.
Facts are not what the best scientists are looking for, rather they are merely pointers along the way.
Real science is a revision in progress, always. It proceeds in fits and starts of ignorance.
If this is true of science, then how much more of art or any creative venture. Think, for example, of John Keats’ notion of negative capabilty:
that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.
Uncertainty, mystery, doubt … these are not always comfortable to live with, but they are authentic and creative ways of being. Once we decide ahead what the product must be, then creativity is dead, whether we are scientists, visual artists or writers.
As Firestein puts it:
Science, then, is not like the onion in the often used analogy of stripping away layer after layer to get at some core, central, fundamental truth. Rather it’s like the magic well: no matter how many buckets of water you remove, there’s always another one to be had. Or even better, it’s like the widening ripples on the surface of a pond, the ever larger circumference in touch with more and more of what’s outside the circle, the unknown. This growing forefront is where science occurs… It is a mistake to bob around in the circle of facts instead of riding the wave to the great expanse lying outside the circle.
Staying with questions over facts is not easy. We’ve all experienced just how disquieting ‘not knowing’ can be during lockdown and yet it’s the things that we don’t know that give us the momentum to go on making new discoveries and connections.
Firestein sums it up like this:
Science produces ignorance, and ignorance fuels science. We have a quality scale for ignorance. We judge the value of science by the ignorance it defines. Ignorance can be big or small, tractable or challenging. Ignorance can be thought about in detail. Success in science, either doing it or understanding it, depends on developing comfort with the ignorance, something akin to Keats’ negaive capabilty.
Ambiguity not definitions
My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant.
Quite often when reading novels submitted for literary competitions there will be a handful of manuscripts that all the answers. Such novels have many ‘designs’ on their readers. They are often over-written as well as didactic and reading them can feel like being hit with a sledge hammer of righteousness. They leave no room for the reader to interpret or engage with a story and form a human connection to it. In a Letter to J. H. Reynolds, on 3 February 1818, the poet John Keats noted:
We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us — and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject
We live in an age overflowing with information in which wisdom is often in short supply. As writers, we are not there to preach but to open up possibilities. We may have strong convictions, but compassion, truth and connection are communicated better by questions than by diktat. As Thoreau goes on:
Which is the best man to deal with — he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?
Staying with ambiguity and uncertainty is urgent. When we lose the ability to be tentative, our humanity is also eroded. This is what Jacob Bronowski says, writing about Auschwitz:
This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas — it was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma … When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.
This is why writers must be tentative. When we believe that we have all the answers then they will invariably be too simplistic to allow for life in in all its complexity and messiness.
Connections not destinations
It is not answers, but questions and connections that serve us as writers, creators, as humans.
Any truly creative act is one of making connections, Nietzsche realised this in Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, back in 1878:
Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration… shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects…
Connection is not about how many facts we have. Creativity is rather an act of joining the dots that no-one has joined before.
William James thought of creativity as a
cauldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbing about in a state of bewildering activity.
Being open to questions. Colliding ideas. Connecting disparate areas. This is what writers do at their best.
Humility not hubris
Remaining tentative is a way of creating without feeling we have arrived. As Wendell Berry puts it in The Way of Ignorance:
There are kinds and degrees of ignorance that are remediable, of course, and we have no excuse for not learning all we can. Within limits, we can learn and think; we can read, hear, and see; we can remember. …
But… our ignorance ultimately is irremediable… Do what we will, we are never going to be free of mortality, partiality, fallibility, and error. The extent of our knowledge will always be, at the same time, the measure of the extent of our ignorance.
Because ignorance is thus a part of our creaturely definition, we need an appropriate way: a way of ignorance, which is the way of neighborly love, kindness, caution, care, appropriate scale, thrift, good work, right livelihood…
The way of ignorance, therefore, is to be careful, to know the limits and the efficacy of our knowledge. It is to be humble and to work on an appropriate scale.
As writers we witness to the world, in all its mess and uncertainty. We make leaps and connections. We ask huge questions and suggest new stories at times crying out for change and healing. But if there is to be change and a ‘new normal’, writers need to tell these stories with humility and tentativeness, not arrogance. We need to do so always with an eye to kindness, to what connects.
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — if you’d like to join writers who are diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, sign up to my email list. You’ll also find free courses on my site. While you’re there, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life.