We haven’t had a true Wednesday Moment of Zen for a while now. So I offer to all my Wednesday readers an essay by Dinah Lenney in Brevity about the fine art of Not Knowing. Where fiction writers are generally all right with not being sure where a character or even a plot line is going, and letting the work and the moment carry them, for a nonfiction writer it embodies a precarious state of unsureness, one that we’ve been conditioned to fight against in our search for the definitive. Lenney describes attending an art gallery reading and running into a mentor of hers, who asks her how the writing is going:
Come to find out, talking in a gallery is a little like talking in a car; something about not having to look a person in the eye (and this is maybe a bit like writing, too) makes all kinds of confession possible. And so, when Jim asked, “How’s the writing?,” I was honest with him. “What writing? Fuck writing,” I said. “I’m never writing anything again.” Then Jim asked, “What question are you trying to answer?”
His reply, something of a koan that she takes to heart, leads her into a meditation on the need to be sure, on admitting to an audience that there are things we—ostensibly the experts on whatever it is we’ve decided we’re experts about—don’t know, and a wonderful bit on deconstructing hard copy to rebuild a part of the memoir she’s been working on. It’s a thought-provoking piece, reassuring and to the point (the site is called Brevity, after all) and not a bad thing to keep in mind when that need for absolutes makes you grind to a halt.
Thanks to Jim, since that time, when I’m down and out about the work, I’m liable to ask myself: What question are you trying to answer? It’s not that I necessarily come up with any single question. As for answers, my hunch is that the answers are beside the point: It’s looking for answers—it’s not knowing and wanting to know—that’s what’s interesting, that’s the truth of the human condition, and, as a reader and a writer, that’s what I’m after on the page.
Come to think of it, that works for fiction as well as essay writing, since the need to stay true to the facts can be even more imperative when you’re the one controlling them. A wise teacher long ago told me that all art must contain beauty and mystery—and I imagine it’s all right if some of that mystery stays outside the maker’s control. Relax, it’s Wednesday. Thanks to the always-pertinent Writing in Public for pointing the way.
(Image, “Question Mark,” by Karen Eliot.)