On Doubt and Not-Knowing in Fiction

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In his 1980 essay “Of Doubt and Dreams,” Samuel Delany notes that the art of writing necessarily requires the act of self-doubt:

A unique process begins when the writer lowers the pen to put words on paper—or taps out letters onto the page with typewriter keys. Certainly writers think about and plan stories beforehand; and certainly, after writing a few stories, you may plan them or think about them in a more complex way. But even this increased complexity is likely to grow out of the process of which I’m speaking. The fact is, almost everyone thinks about stories. Many even get to the point of planning them. But the place where the writer’s experience differs from everyone else’s is during the writing process itself. What makes this process unique has to do directly with doubting.

What strikes me about this passage and Delany’s essay more largely is its insistence that this paradox of simultaneously following a clear direction and permitting the work to dictate the route is a problem particular to writers of fiction. And he might be right. While one can imagine the lyric impulse of the poem or the meandering logic of the essay easily fits with the notions of doubt and not-knowing, the question lingers: what of fiction, the genre that is conventionally thought of as “plotted”? Should writers of fiction come to a story or narrative with a conceit or concern already crafted, or does writing through, around, and among the consciousnesses, characters, and languages of fiction reveal to these writers their ultimate uptake?

In her 1987 essay, titled (with, importantly, scare quotes) “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” Ursula K. Le Guin addresses the question posed to her time and again at the conclusion of readings and lectures by arguing fiction does not originate from our conventional sense of “ideas” at all:

The process may not involve ideas in the sense of intelligible thoughts; it may well not even involve words. It may be a matter of mood, resonances, mental glimpses, voices, emotions, visions, dreams, anything. […] I don’t believe a writer ‘gets’ (takes into the head) an ‘idea’ (some sort of mental object) ‘from’ somewhere, and then turns it into words and writes them on paper.

She goes on to articulate that the maturity of good stories is founded on a careful balance of writers first embracing control and later abandoning it “when the work takes off on its own and flies farther than they ever planned or imagined, to places they didn’t know they knew.”

For Le Guin, rich fiction surfaces when the writer permits herself to work beyond the plan or plot she may have first imagined her work would be “about.” I put “about” in quotes here because I believe Le Guin and Delaney would agree with Maurice Blanchot’s notion that fiction’s meaning comes not in its being written, but in its being read. Whether that reading happens by a critic or a colleague, a fellow writer or a library browser, the writer herself several years later or someone yet to be born, Blanchot claims that a work’s meaning is released when the work meets a set of reading conditions and circumstances, not when the writer commits it to the page. With this in mind, it strikes me that to argue a work of fiction is “about” anything at all during the act of that piece’s coming to be is perhaps an already flawed endeavor. Perhaps it is not an incident that writers of poetry are called “poets” and writers of creative nonfiction are called “essayists” and writers of fiction are called—you see where I’m going here.

The same year that Le Guin published her essay to quiet that question from her fans, Donald Barthelme published his short meditation on the art of doubt, “On Not Knowing.” In the essay, Barthelme echoes Delany’s theories when he claims that writing fiction is founded on the art of embracing the unknown:

Without the scanning processes engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention. […] The combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they’re allowed to go to bed together, allows the writer to surprise himself, makes art possible, reveals how much of Being we haven’t yet encountered.

So here’s where I’m going with this: Despite Delany, Le Guin, and Barthelme’s claims, some thirty years later there still seems to be a pervasive understanding that writing a story first requires an “idea”: whether it is a character, circumstance, or conflict. I see this at work when my students use fiction as a safe mechanism for composing what are essentially essays; when my poet colleagues claim they don’t write stories because there is too much pre-planning involved; and in the slush pile of the literary journals on which I work, where short stories practically announce their theses by the end of the second page.

What is consistent across Delany, Le Guin, and Barthelme’s theories of embracing doubt and not-knowing in the writing process is this: that the claim that a writer has an “idea for a novel” or a hint of knowing what their short story is “about” before having written it is not only restrictive, but perhaps the wrong way of endeavoring in the enterprise of fiction. For fiction is never about character and plot; it is about time’s relationship to order and disorder and how a consciousness enters and conveys the interworkings of a world. It may be that we tell ourselves fiction requires a scaffolding at the onset, but because of fiction’s inherent commitment to ambiguity, there is a consistent and ongoing collapsing and reconstructing of that edifice. As such, our scaffolding—our “idea”—is really just a comfortable tool we writers of fiction use to convince ourselves (and others!) we are not always cloaked in doubt and not-knowing. For I am here to tell you, dear writers of fiction! We are very much cloaked in doubt and not-knowing; this is the womb in which good fiction incubates.

“To be a writer, you must write,” Delany tells us as he begins to break down that oft-cited tautology posted on the cork boards of creative writers everywhere. “You must write not only to produce the text that is the historical verification of your having written; you must write to project yourself, again and again, through the annealing moment that provides the neg-entropic organization which makes a few texts privileged tools of perception. Without this moment, this series of moments, of doubts about language shattered by language, the text is only a document of time passed with some paper, of time spent pondering a passage through a dream.”

Or, to put it in fewer terms but, arguably, less clearly—Karl Kraus: “A writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer.”


Image: “Airplane of 1909” from Ernest L. Jones Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.

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