Writing, Reason and the Insatiable Quest for “Why?”

Another split infinitive...sigh!

If you’ve spent much time on writers’ forums, you’ve almost certainly run across threads debating the merits of critique groups. If you’re a writer yourself and have been a member of a critique group, you have your own opinion…one I’m probably not going to change. Pro-critique group arguments tend to center on the feedback they get leading to improved writing, while anti-critique group comments tend to focus on how amateurish some groups are and how contradictory the advice they get often proves to be.

Both positions have merit, but I believe critique groups’ value depends on their composition. Thoughtful members often submit thought-provoking stories for critique and insights gained in critiquing their work not only hones our eyes and ears in evaluating our own work, but they enrich our understanding of people, of life…or both. A recent short story authored by one of the talented writers in the Advanced Fiction Group illustrates what I mean. I’m going to share the gist of it here and use it as a springboard to share the broader insight her work illuminated with such clarity.

Shannon Brady’s “Log Jam”

File Shannon’s name away for future reference. We’ll all be reading her work…sooner rather than later. In “Log Jam,” Shannon takes the reader inside the mind of a disaffected man waiting to catch the Metro. While waiting, he notices that after almost a year working for his current employer, his name badge is misspelled. (Duog instead of Doug). The error on Doug’s name tag is symbolic of how things have gone for him, lately…not simply the error itself, but that neither he nor anyone with whom he works has noticed. Through his internal dialog, the author puts us in touch with his alienation and disconnection while avoiding heavy-handed melodrama.

After Doug boards the Metro, a woman sitting in his car breaks down in an uncomfortably public display of grief. As people near the woman move away, another woman in the car sits next to her and without question or inquiry, takes the crying woman in her arms, offering what comfort she can.

Doug marvels that the woman does so without asking why she is weeping or seeking to lessen her own pain by attempting to quiet the woman’s sobbing. She simply lets the woman feel without judgment, offering the comfort of closeness. At one point, Doug observes:

“Maybe she knows it’s not about the reason—sometimes there is no reason… but they (referring others) expect there to be…” (Excerpted from “Log Jam” with the permission of the author).

Shannon’s story not only highlights several sublimely human truths, it also inspires additional thought. While the author’s focus is grief and (in this case), our culturally inherited reactions to extravagant emotion, I found my own thoughts wandering even further afield.

Our Insatiable Thirst for “Why”

At the core of the human condition  lies the fundamental thirst for an underpinning why…for causation. Whether it’s feelings or the ontological mysteries of the Universe, at our core is the profound lust to KNOW. Doe this not lie at the plethora of speculative myths and (ultimately) the scientific methodWhat is inexplicable begs explanation.

Here be dragons...

“Hic Sunt Dracones”

But at a deeper level does our curiosity have another motive? May our curiosity have it’s roots in the desperate need for our Universe to make sense? How can we be “safe” if the Universe we cannot control also confounds understanding? More personally, what if we are not the divinely ordained inheritors of the Earth…not the seed of God created in his (or her) image? I’s a question whose answer is shrouded in enigma so deep we may never know the answer.

 

What then shall we to do? Shall we bravely acknowledge what we don’t know and perhaps never will? Or shall we invent the answers best tailored to our needs, when logic and scientific inquiry fail us? Buried deep in the unknown lies the ultimate, self-inflicted fear, as illustrated on The Hunt-Lenox globe of 1510. In some of the (then) unexplored regions of the world the laconic, “Hic sunt dracones,” appears. Did  the Hunt-Lenox cartographers truly believed dragons inhabited the unexplored regions of the world?

Reason, Acceptance and Understanding

Giving our curiosity its due, our need for the underpinning why…lies behind many of our most profound discoveries. But does not that same need for “a reason” often inspire us to invent elaborate mythologies, or to endow unrelated coincidence with causation?

But as Shannon’s story illustrates, some of what we experience has no apparent answer. While many truths may eventually be known, often it comes too late for our personal comfort. Accepting that we do not now (and may never) know is not an argument against further discovery. Still, as Shannon’s story illustrates, sometimes it’s best to smile and make peace with a Universe in which logic and unfathomable paradox coexist. At the personal level, this is often even more difficult.

At the personal level especially, this inner grace may be hardest to achieve. But as “Log Jam” illustrates, acceptance and love may be among our best shields against our most fearsome dragons.

Dirk Sayers is the organizer/facilitator of the Advanced Fiction Group and the author of West of Tomorrow, a contemporary novel of corporate intrigue, betrayal, misplaced love and the phoenix in all of us. It is due out in December, 2015 and will be available in paperback and Kindle. Revisit this site for updates on West of Tomorrow and Tier Zero, Volume I OF The Knolan Cycle, a science fiction series of first contact between Knola and Earth.

My heartfelt thanks to Shannon Brady for her permission to excerpt a snippet from her story and to use it as a springboard for my own thoughts. Her story is currently in the submission process. I will let everyone know where the full story can be read when it is published. To read more of her short stories, visit http://vandercave.com/houseplant.

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