Therese here. Please welcome today’s guest, the one and only Sarah Callender, who’s here to talk with us about how doubt can be good for a writer. Sarah’s blog, Inside-Out Underpants, is one of my personal favorites–intimate and authentic, and highlighting Sarah’s sharp wit. Case in point, her recent blog post entitled Graffiti, in which she announced her upcoming birthday. Here’s an excerpt:
A small but pertinent announcement: next month I am turning 50!
(Actually, that’s a lie. I’m turning 40. BUT I have realized if I lie and tell people I am ten years older than I am, they will say things like, “Holy schmokes, you look fantastic!”…
I’m so glad Sarah–forty or fifty–is with us today. Enjoy!
Turning the Soil
A few weeks ago my Zen Buddhist Mechanic (i.e. my therapist) told me something that altered the way I look at writing.
“The practice of being a writer,” he said, “requires great doubt.”
I stared at him. Could this be true? I started bouncing a bit on the couch, so great was my excitement.
“Are you serious?” I said. “Because I have great doubt. I have aLOT of great doubt. You may not believe this, but driving here just now, I was thinking that the only reason my agent offered representation was because she felt sorry for me. That’s doubt, pure and simple.”
But my Zen Buddhist mechanic wagged his finger. “Sarah. That is western doubt, the doubt that makes you question your talent, your ability. Rather, I am talking about the doubt that leads to perplexity.”
“Huh?” I asked, perplexed.
As my mechanic went on to explain, the doubt that too easily fills my head and snuffs my creative fire is not the kind of doubt he meant.
Oh. Right. Of course.
As it turns out, there’s a good kind and a bad kind of doubt. Just like there’s a healthy kind of fat (olive oil) and a dangerous kind of fat (bacon maple bars from Voodoo Doughnut). We writers need the good doubt. The doubt that leads us to seek understanding. The doubt that generates inquisition and questioning. Doubt as a state of wonder.
Of course, my mechanic is right; there is no story, at least not one of any consequence, if, at the heart of the story, there is nothing that the author longs to understand. Without wonder, a story is only bunches of words, prettily arranged.
It would serve us adults well to consider the way in which young kids display their wonder. They putter through their preschool years, constantly asking, always searching, often questioning that which adults have readily accepted. If these doubt-filled small fries are lucky, their sense of wonder is fostered and applauded by the supportive adults in their lives.
As adults, however, a frequent state of wonder, a constant searching for understanding and enlightenment is not embraced. If my husband puttered around, asking, Would the world be a more peaceful place if we were born old, then matured into babies? or Do you think I’ve ever breathed the same air that Picasso or Hitler or Jesus breathed? or How does everyone, all over the world, recognize ‘yellow’ as ‘yellow’? I’d likely throw a dishtowel at his face, then tell him to take out the garbage, Mister Fancy-Thoughts.
We tolerate the wondering of children. But adult wondering? Who has time?
Yet where would we be without history’s great grown-up wonderers? On what would I be typing were it not for the wondering of Steve Jobs? Those bacon maple bars from Voodoo Doughnut (in Portland, OR) might not exist were it not for the wondering of Lewis and Clark. It’s hard to imagine surviving childhood—literally—without the wondering of Jonas Salk.
Yet being an Adult Doubter, one who chooses to walk in a state of wonder, is not all fun and games. Let’s remember what happened to Amelia Earhart. Or, go check out Ken Burns’ Lewis and Clark documentary, and you’ll realize Meriwether Lewis wasn’t so merry. Likewise, Albert Einstein claimed to experience “years of anxious searching in the dark.”
Years of anxious searching in the dark? That sounds awful!
That also sounds a whole lot like writing a novel.
Identifying and exploring one’s sense of wonder is thrilling; it is also scary. It is deeply satisfying; it is also hard, hard work. We must do the hard work of turning the soil, of disturbing and disrupting the earth, if the dirt in which we plant our story seeds will yield anything worth harvesting.
In the prologue of Melina Marchetta’s novel, Jellicoe Road, the narrator, a young girl, details a terrible car accident in which her mother and father are killed. She says: “My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die. I counted.” She then goes on to describe the other car involved in the accident, how it melted into her family’s car, “wedged into ours so deep that you couldn’t tell where one [car] began and one ended . . . And then a kid called Fitz came riding by on a stolen bike and saved our lives.
Someone asked us later, “Didn’t you wonder why no one came across you sooner?”
Did I wonder?
When you see your parents zipped up in black body bags on the Jellicoe Road like they’re some kind of garbage, don’t you know?
Ack! Marchetta hooks the reader by setting up the unthinkable: a child who sees no need for wonder.
Truly, a child without wonder is one of the more bleak and sinister images I can conjure.
A writer without wonder is only one or two degrees less bleak.
Is a fiction writer without wonder even a writer at all? Perhaps writer’s block is simply what happens when a writer forgets her wonder, when she loses her grip on the doubt that initially agitated and nudged her into the story.
Much like Earhart and Einstein and Eriksson, explorers who wondered about the existence of other worlds, realities and possibilities, we writers need to seek and retain our perplexity. We need to learn to reconnect with our childlike propensity for doubt, in spite of what may result in years of anxious searching in the dark. It is the work of humans to seek answers. It is the work of artists to remind others of the beauty of wonder, the magic of doubt.
Just for fun, consider your work in progress. Now recall its kernel, the nugget of your doubt that started the whole story in motion. What bit of wonder is the seed of your years of anxious searching? And, in writing your story, are you in an even deeper state of doubt and perplexity?
If so, then good for you. In turning the soil, we allow our doubt to open up the world just a little bigger and wider and deeper.
Hey, just for fun, share one of your doubt nuggets. Here’s mine: To what extent does our memory determine our identity?
Now your turn. If you take a moment to share your story’s seed of doubt, you will provide inspiration and encouragement to your fellow writers. No doubt about it!
Thanks for a wonderful post, Sarah. Readers, you can learn more about Sarah on her must-read blog, Inside-Out Underpants. Write on!
Photo courtesy Flickr’s Sukanto Debnath