Writing is observing. Writing is dreaming, but it’s also searching. I feel that the best writers are explorers of a different sea, the vast sea of the subconscious, searching out a different sort of truth.
“When the writing is really working, I think there is something like dreaming going on,” wrote John Hersey. John Irving wrote “I feel the story I am writing existed before I existed; I’m just the slob who finds it, and rather clumsily tries to do it, and the characters justice… it is entirely ghostly work; I’m just the medium.”
In the College Handbook of Creative Writing’s (Robert DeMaria) introduction the editor writes that the best writers “see themselves as ‘witnesses’.” They “feel that writing is drawn from the deep well of the unconscious mind. In short, the attribute to writing…the highest kind of importance: the creation of beauty and the discovery of truth.”
I always thought that the advice to the young writer to “write what you know” was misleading. It tells you to basically stop searching, stop exploring, when as a writer you should precisely be doing just that. How can you find your truth if you only confine yourself to what you know.
But what sort of truth are we talking about here? To go on a search without a goal seems akin to taking to the High Seas without a map or any sort of direction – to be lost forever in the maelstrom. Amy Tan says that when she writes it’s an act of faith in the hope that she “will discover what [she] mean[s] by the truth.” But she does have a direction, “I also think of reading as an act of faith a hope that I will discover something remarkable about ordinary life, about myself. And if the writer and the reader discover the same thing, if they have that connection, the act of faith has result in an act of magic. To me, that’s the mystery and the wonder of both life and fiction – the connection between two individuals who discover in the end that they are more the same than they are different.” There is truth in connection.
Many writers state that they don’t see writing as an act of pulling something out of the air or building things that never before existed, but rather an act of uncovering something that was always there, an adventure of discovery. When the European explorers first took to the oceans, they saw things that they couldn’t explain. They used tall tales to give their discoveries form: sea monsters and cannibals and magical man eating plants, but not what was actually there. Still they found that the world was filled with wonders that were far beyond what their small hometowns could provide. They were changed by this, they knew that there was always more to know. Some described their discoveries the same way that scientists describe their discoveries – that answers often only lead to more questions, and the world is far more complex than we could have ever imagined.
But those who state that science is the only medium to discover the truth are limiting human discovery. Surely, there can more to the human experience than simply logic, observation and measurement. There are those who argue that there is nothing more to us than a handful of chemicals and electrical impulses, that we are no different than a goldfish, a fruit fly or an amoeba. But gold fish don’t build cathedrals, or symphonies. They don’t paint portraits or speak seven different languages, do calculus. They don’t make rocket ships and fly to the moon, or plastic, or cell phones, or baked Alaska, or Xboxes. They can’t imagine what other gold fish are thinking or feeling. They can only know that they are scared, but don’t know that other gold fish are as well.
There is another way to understand, to discover a deeper truth.
I remember that I was working in a Montessori classroom with an autistic child. I was not qualified for this work, but the Montessori way did not differentiate children with different needs from those of normal development. I was told to just sit and read with the child for a certain number of minutes. Read to him and he’ll remember the words. I knew that this was hard work for him, because it didn’t take long to lose focus. I knew that one of the problems with autism, having read an article about it, was that all of the synapses will fire off at once and the autistic person will sink into confusion. The child I worked with began goofing off and then stood up, walked to the middle of the room and started spinning. I couldn’t allow him to do this, because it was distracting to the other children, so I guided him back to his chair and told him that, no, we needed to read. Still, a sentence went by and he was back into the middle of the room. I was frustrated, but the more I watched him the more I thought about this documentary I’d seen about Turkey and the whirling dervishes. “They twirl to lose their sense, to connect with god,” said the documentary. This is when I realized, the child was trying to disconnect from his rapidly firing synapses. I knew that I needed to re-focus him, so I went up to him and rubbed his back, focus him on that sensation and to calm him. He stopped, froze for a bit, then walked back to the reading cubby and picked up the book where he’d left off.
That realization was not careful observation, measurement and re-measurement, it was a leap of imagination, of intuition. Was it not Albert Einstein who said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, imagination encompasses the entire universe.”
Science is limited. If it cannot be measured, it cannot be explored. Scientist can never define Absolute Zero, never truly measure the entire universe, never tell you when exactly Schrödinger’s cat dies. It can never find out what happened to D.B. Cooper or Amelia Earhart, but the imagination can sufficiently fill in the gaps where science cannot. Science uses the five senses and machines to measure the world, but fiction writer explores it by watching, listening, smelling, tasting, but also intuits it. She delves in to the complex labyrinth of the human emotional, thinking and feeling mind. She explores the inner impulses of humanity and the battle of minds, the battle of the ego versus the id. This dimension is one that cannot be measured or monitored, it simply must be understood. Perhaps that too is an act of faith. But we are complex creatures and saying that the only way to understand us is to simply measure us is to sell us short in all our marvels. And to sell the world itself short – there’s more out there than you can possibly know just leave the world you know – either through travel or a good book – and you’ll see.