We love certainty. We look for it in everything: our religion, philosophies, morality, politics, how to guides. We want things that will work. We want tried and tested. We want to be sure. This works, that doesn’t. This is worthwhile, brilliant, the perfect solution. While that, on the other hand, is not to be trusted. These things represent who I am; I live accordingly.
I’ve surfed many a tide of compelling new truth in the hope of making sense of my existence, or improving it in some way. But everywhere I look for certainty I find contradiction. I find uncertainty. Things are rarely what they seem.
Convergent versus divergent thinking
David Jauss in his brilliant book ‘On Writing Fiction: rethinking conventional wisdom about the craft’ reassures us that uncertainty is not to be feared. For writers, and creatives of all kinds, uncertainty is to be embraced.
He explains the difference between convergent thinking – where we converge with the ‘fact’ – and divergent thinking, which requires us to diverge from the ‘correct’ answer in order to come up with something else. Divergent thinking asks us to consider our options, to play around with possibility. To ask what if…?
Generally, in our everyday lives, we use both ways of thinking, but we favour convergent. We want truth to such an extent that convergent thinking is reflexive. Once we’ve decided that something is ‘true’ we tend to stick with it, we promote it to others, and become biassed in our thinking – we see the evidence that supports our ‘truth’ and ignore everything else. There is comfort in certainty.
Jauss uses an exercise with his students that he says (slightly tongue in cheek) will teach them everything they need to know about the creative process. He asks them to write their names on a piece of paper. He then asks them to write an alias. When they write their names they are using convergent thinking. It’s quick, automatic, un-troubling. When they pause, unsure, chewing their pens as they try to create an alias, they are using divergent thinking.
“The creative process, I tell them, resides in that hesitation, that moment of uncertainty. For without uncertainty, the imagination simply does not come into play.” David Jauss.
Not-knowing and the creative process
“Not knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.” Donald Barthelme.
We are faced here with a contradiction. We must embrace not knowing, at the same time understanding that feeling uncertain can hold us back, especially in the early days of dedicating ourselves to the craft. We must accept doubt as integral to creativity, but doubt can lead to paralysis. Not knowing can make us feel inadequate, amateurish, fraudulent.
So how do we break the cycle? Perhaps we never fully do. It might be just be a matter of familiarity – of getting used to those feelings of embarrassment, shame, fear, doubt – of consciously accepting them as part of the process. There are plenty of books about creativity that will help you face your inner critic, and maybe for lots of us it’s a good starting place. But beyond that work there will still always be uncertainty because not knowing, uncertainty, doubt, hesitation are part of the creative process.
If every writer, of every generation, in every country has, at some point, failed to achieve what they set out to do, been rejected in some way, and been crippled with uncertainty and self-doubt, then it stands to reason that we will experience all these things too. That’s what it’s all part of the process means.
Not one of us is immune. Not one of us is special. And if that’s the case (which it is) then surely it makes sense to embrace it? Or even to revel in it? Wear uncertainty like a badge of honour; you’re in good company after all.
As we begin to see uncertainty as an integral part of the creative process, we become more productive.
When we realise that we don’t have to wait to be certain – about anything! – in order to write and to keep writing then we carry on regardless of how we feel. We avoid the kind of ‘writer’s block’ that occurs when we interpret uncertainty and doubt as a sign of incompetence, lack of skill or deficit of experience. We get curious more than fearful. We open up instead of closing down. We look beyond what we think we know to the horizons beyond.
In other words we grow. And our writing grows with us.
Uncertainty and contradiction: the perfect marriage
However, we can go further than embracing uncertainty. Jauss suggests that actively cultivating contradiction works wonders for our writing. Not only does it help us move beyond the paralysis of doubt, but it helps us write better stories.
We think of contradiction as a negative thing. You’re contradicting yourself, is used as a criticism. Being contrary is to be avoided. But life is full of contradiction, and some of the very best stories involve contradictions too. Philosophers throughout history (Heraclitus, Plotinus, Hume, Engels and Hegel) have attempted to persuade us that contradiction is not only rationally possible but necessary for our understanding of the world.
All ‘truth’ involves contradiction. Life involves death. Love can arouse feelings of hatred. We can be both knowledgeable and ignorant. If we can stay awake to the contradictions that pepper our lives then our characters and plots will become just that little bit more interesting, challenging, thought-provoking and surprising.
We should, therefore, as writers, aim to be contrary. And we can do this at every stage of our writing. When planning (even if we are not plotters, we do some degree of thinking about and developing the idea for our story) we can challenge ourselves when it comes to choosing and developing our characters. The vast majority of characters in books and films are still white, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied characters. We could contradict the tendency to recreate the familiar in this regard.
And at every stage we can ask ourselves what if? What if I change things? What if I don’t have them fall in love? What if I play around with what I thought was going to happen? What if I do the opposite instead? What if I change the ending entirely – what happens then? What have I always presumed about this story? What if something else is true?
We must learn, then, to contradict our first inclinations about character, action, plot etc. We can make this a habit, cultivating a healthy suspicion of the ideas we come up with in the first instance. Doing so helps us avoid cliche – for what is cliche if not the most obvious of options?
Over time we come to recognise (often with the help of others, who provide constructive criticism) our own, personal tendencies that need contradicting. For instance, I’ve learned from writing three novels that I struggle to maintain tension within my stories. I am so uncomfortable making other people (characters and readers alike) uncomfortable that I resolve tension far too quickly, slackening the pace of my writing.
There is only one way to resolve this; I have to contradict myself. I feel that X is the right thing, but I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not the right thing at all. I have to force myself to write Y.
Uncertainty and contradiction can be scary at first, especially if we have prided ourselves for a long time on ‘knowing’. But, ultimately, they make life and creativity and writing so much easier. They deliver us from certainty, which is weighed down with its nit-picking pedantry. Embracing contradiction means there is no one way to do things, there is no ultimate truth. There is play, paradox and a multitude of possibilities.
Tell me what you think… Do you struggle with uncertainty? Or do you love to be contrary??