Why writers need to live with the questions

Photo by Adrian Bar on Unsplash

Certainty and dogmatism are as anathema to creativity as they are to personal development. Once we are sure, once we know that we are right, then what else is there to say? Once we think we’ve arrived at all the answers, anything we do say becomes mere preaching.

Carl Sagan tells us.

If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.

The trap of being Right

We all know how bewitching the urge to be ‘Right can be. There are times when we are so consumed by winning that we will defend a position long after we have lost the thread. Times when feeling Right and self-justified is such a powerful drug. In The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute, there’s an insightful breakdown of the positions we tend to adopt when we see others as objects that need fixing. In the adrenaline-fuelled, high-emotion of vindication and correcting the other there are four directions:

  • I’m better than everyone else. The world needs me but is too stupid to realise this and so I disdain everyone.
  • I deserve better than this. I’m the unappreciated genius/ prophet/hero to an ungrateful world and I’m right to resent how unfair this is.
  • I must be seen. I should be well-thought of but instead the world is wrong and judgemental so of course I’m right to be anxious, needy, stressed and overwhelmed.
  • I’m worse than everyone else. I’m broken because I have bad luck and the world has not served me so I’m right to feel embittered and antagonistic towards the rest, who have all the luck.

I’m not a fan of character types and fixed identities but these are not types of people so much as emotional traps we can all fall into at various times. When we feel threatened and on the defensive we’re more likely to fall into these reactions, which the Arbinger Institute calls a ‘heart at war’, if we value being Right over learning, generosity and humanity, including to ourselves.

When we get into positions like this then we end up in a downward cycle of launching emotional attacks that only muddy our thinking. The volley of self-justification is corrosive, to relationships, to self-esteem and to any ability to write well. We descend instead into diatribe and didacticism. And we feel miserable.

Anne Lamott puts it like this:

When we are stuck in our convictions and personas, we enter into the disease of having good ideas and being right… We think we have a lock on truth, with our burnished surfaces and articulation, but the bigger we pump ourselves up, the easier we are to prick with a pin. And the bigger we get, the harder it is to see the earth under our feet.

We all know the horror of having been Right with a capital R, feeling the surge of a cause, whether in politics or custody disputes. This rightness is so hot and steamy and exciting, until the inevitable rug gets pulled out from under us. Then we get to see that we almost never really know what is true, except what everybody else knows: that sometimes we’re all really lonely, and hollow, and stripped down to our most naked human selves.

It is the worst thing on earth, this truth about how little truth we know. I hate and resent it. And yet it is where new life rises from.

Simply the same

Photo by Alex Sorto on Unsplash

Yet when we let go of being Right, we let go of the notion that we’re different and special and better. That’s not to say that you are not special. Rather it’s that all of us are special, each with wonderful contributions to make, but none of us are superheroes responsible for the world.

When we realise that we are all fallible and that we are all living with the questions, this gives us more empathy and grace, qualities essential to everyone and which writers certainly need by the bucket-load.

Writers are those who tell and retell the myths that a society needs. In an age when we are ‘falling out of myth’, to quote D Stephenson Bond, an age when our myths are ‘more, more, more’ and ‘work harder, work faster’, when our myths are neither serving the planet nor those who live on it, writers have to be brave enough to suggest new myths.

We need writers willing to tell myths in which everyone is a person, not an object. We need writers to spin deep stories that give individuals the space to relate again to the environment.

Writers need the courage to live in the cracks of culture in which the old myths no longer function.

And this is difficult task. It is fraught with the possibility of error. In the face of this, we have to remain tentative. We need to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find our way back if we discover we’ve taken a wrong turn, or several wrong turns. The path of constructing story and myth with a large and generous imagination isn’t always a clear one. So we have to be willing:

  • to eschew the illusion of always being Right
  • to see everyone as person, not other
  • to embrace our humanity and fallibility
  • to see ourselves as someone as special as the next person, no more, no less

Not only are the questions more creative than the answers, but being wrong is essentially human. In Being Wrong: adventures in the margins of error, Kathryn Schulz notes:

However disorienting, difficult, or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.

We have to be willing to live with the questions and with negative capability.

All that is unsolved

Negative Capability is an ability proposed by the poet Keats. It’s the capacity to live with uncertainty and mystery, to embrace ambiguity.

In The Accelerated Universe, Alan Lightman puts it like this:

Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand… the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.

It’s not being Right, but what we don’t know that drives us to stay curious, to be imaginative, to ask and to invent. This is from one of Galileo’s letters:

Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known? Let us rather confess quite truly that‘Those truths which we know are very few in comparison with those which we do not know.’

In Ignorance; how it drives science, Stuart Firestein asserts:

Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.

And he likens this essential ignorance, as opposed to mere information and fact-gathering, to Keats’ notion of negative capability.

Writers, like the best scientists, are in the business of delving deep into mystery, living with doubt and uncertainty in the confidence that this also makes them curious, humane and more empathic.

It is a condition that Rilke also heartily commends:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.

This is difficult. Most of us would be much more comfortable proceeding from a solid basis of certainty. It takes courage to write with humility and tentatively from the cracks in a breaking culture. And yet, to quote Albert Einstein:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious — the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.

Holding disparate truths together

This brings us full circle to Carl Sagan’s opinion that if we think we have arrived at the place of knowing it all, something will be very much amiss. This is not to romanticise muddy thinking, half-baked opinions, or the kind of vaunting of ‘wonder’ that can be a way of stopping people thinking for themselves. But it is to make a plea for being always tentative while rigorously curious. It’s a call to writers to be bold, imaginative, yet humble. It is a hope that reason and mystery can live side by side and that this will be fruitful and creative.

With this in mind, the last word goes to Alan Lightman, physicist, novelist and poet, who knows what it is to live in the questions as both a scientist and a writer.

Song of Two Worlds (extracts)

Awake —
What are these quick shots of warmth,
Fractals of forests
That wind through my limbs?
Fragrance of olive and salt taste of skin,
Razz-tazz and clackety sound?
Figures and shapes slowly wheel past my view,
Villas and deserts, distorted faces,
Children, my children —

Distant, the pink moons of my feet.
What rules do they follow?
I think movement, they wondrously move,
Moons flutter and shake.
I probe the hills and the ruts of my face —
Now I grow large, now I grow small, as the waves
Of sensation break over my shore.

There, a gnarled tree I remember,
A stone vessel, the curve of a hill.
What is the hour?
Some silence still sleeps
In my small sleeping room —
Is it end or beginning?

I take up my pen, dry for some years.
What should I write?
What should I think?
[…]

I knock on the door of the universe.
Here, this small villa, this table, this pen.
I ask the universe: What? and Why?
Now weakened, I must remake the world,
One grain at a time.
[…]

I knock on the door of the universe, asking:
What makes the light of the stars?
What makes the heat of my flesh?
What makes the tear shape of rain?
[…]

So much I’ve lost,
I have nothing
Except a fierce hunger
To fathom this world.
Naked, I knock on the door,
Wearing only my questions.
[…]

This is the world of the ticking of clocks,
Menses of women and tides
Of the moon. orbits of planets,
The swing of the pendulum, spin of the earth,
Cycles of seasons.

This is the cosmos of time and of space,
And of light rays that travel twelve billion years,
And the whale-raptured sprawl of the galaxies.
But is this not also the cosmos of life,
That rare cluster of atoms and forms,
A few grains on the beach of nonlife?
[…]

One thousand questions, and each gives
An answer, which then forms a question.
The questions and answers will meld with each other
Like colors of light,
Like the light rays that once crossed the space
Of the cosmos
And rest now in the small warmth of a hand.

I knock on the doors of the universe,
Asking: What makes the swirl
Of ghazali love songs?
And the parallel singing of loss?
And the choice to live life alone?

I surrender my calipers, rules, and clocks,
Microscopes, diodes, transistors,
Glass flasks. For how can I measure
The stroke of a passion? Or dissect a grief
With the digits of pi?

Thus, I stand naked, with nothing
Except a fierce hunger to fathom this world,
To embark on this road
Without length without breadth.

Becoming a different story

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Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @ https://janfortune.com/