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Writing what you don't know

"There are only two or three human stories," said Willa Cather, "and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before." When a story is told enough, it becomes a "ritual of truth," to use Thomas Dumm's phrase. He wrote that "democracy itself depends upon the continuing and autonomous iteration and reiteration of the meaning of words, sentences, paragraphs, and fragments. Instead of reaching final conclusions, perhaps we would do better to think in terms of the rituals of truth that govern our lives together and apart, truths that are radically historical in character." Why isn't a truth-ritual a final conclusion? Because a truth-ritual is a story, and stories contain unresolved ideas. Joan Didion wrote: "The idea that fiction has certain irreducible ambiguities seemed never to occur to these women, nor should it have, for fiction is in most ways hostile to ideology." Those unresolved ideas are why the stories repeat as if they'd never happened before, to answer Willa Cather's question.

Arthur Herzog explained C. Wright Mills' use of the term "sponge words," meaning words that are vague and flexible.

The verbal concoctions dripping from our lips can easily lead to illusion and error, and result in the inflamed rhetoric and unceasing cant of our day. Words are means of doing things, and chaos in language brings chaos in deed.

* * *

Let us take an example from business. As a red-blooded American businessman, you might say (in fact, you do say) that the American business system is historically unique. But you also claim that free enterprise is natural to human beings. Logically, it is impossible to have it both ways. Either free enterprise as practiced here is unique, in which case it can hardly be called natural, or it is natural, in which case it is not unique. Rather than facing up to the contradiction, the temptation is to summon what the sociologist C. Wright Mills called sponge words — such as "freedom" — which soak up the inconsistency.

Iris Murdoch said that we should strive for more "verbal precision" since it is through language that we are able to reveal truth. To deliberately strive for precision is good, and to deliberately obfuscate to gain power is evil. (Note the distinction between the idea that truth is revealed and that, as suggested earlier, it is created through ritual.)

Words constitute the ultimate texture and stuff of our moral being, since they are the most refined and delicate and detailed, as well as the most universally used and understood of the symbolisms whereby we express ourselves into existence.

We become spiritual animals when we become verbal animals. The fundamental distinctions can only be made in words. Words are spirit. Of course eloquence is no guarantee of goodness, and an inarticulate man can be virtuous. But the quality of a civilization depends upon its ability to discern and reveal truth and this depends upon the scope and purity of its language.

Any dictator attempts to degrade the language because this is a way to mystify. And many of the quasi-automatic operations of capitalist industrial society tend also toward mystification and the blunting of verbal precision.

"Every story arises out of perplexity," said Manohar Shyam Joshi:

"I started writing and found that composing a story about perplexity was itself a perplexing and troubling thing, partly because perplexity is beyond words and partly because words themselves produce perplexity. Even by being written down, no final form and no fixed denouement could be given the story of the perplexity of Hariya Hercules. Every story arises out of perplexity and it is the responsibility of every story to explain that perplexity in the idiom of everyday language. But where in the idiom of everyday language is there any scope for perplexity?"

Mo Willems said:

“I learned that I love writing for kids because you don’t have to deal with cultural modifiers. I’m just writing about emotions. I like to say: ‘Love, jealousy, hatred, wanting to drive a bus — the fundamental, core things.’ As I’ve evolved, I’ve started to realize that every book that I write is a philosophical question that I don’t know the answer to. And therefore it interests me. If I know the answer, I won’t make a book out of it.”

This drive to explain the perplexity is a drive to transform mere data into usable information. “Many people think all written words and numbers are information," said Richard Saul Wurman, "but if they don’t inform — if you do not understand them — they are data, not information.”

A novel by Sharad P. Paul poses this question: "This is the paradox of journalism. If it is all about uncovering the truth, then why are their newspaper articles called 'articles'? Sometimes I have found that truth can be like one of those Russian dolls. You know the ones I mean, the ones with sequentially smaller dolls inside larger ones. Sometimes you have to open many dolls before you find the real one." Uncovering the truth is difficult because people hide it. As Julie Jensen put it: "Now a human truth and also a character truth: Characters, like most people, almost never tell the truth. Sometimes they're protecting themselves, sometimes they're manipulating others, sometimes they've got a skewed vision of the world. And sometimes they're just polite and go along when someone else seems to know more." People's truth-telling is often confined to private journals, which are, themselves, written in "ambiguous language" to maintain privacy. One of Amin Maalouf's fictional characters said:

"But sometimes I ask myself: why keep a diary, and in this ambiguous language, when I know no one will ever read it? When in fact I don’t even want anyone to read it? I do it precisely because it helps me to clarify my thoughts and memories without having to tell my travelling companions about them.

Other people write as they speak. I write as I stay silent."


Willa Cather, quoted in the Ithaca, NY Journal, quoted in The Week, Feb. 11, 2011, p. 21.

Thomas Dumm. Loneliness as a Way of Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008. p. 34.

Joan Didion. The White Album (1979). New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990. p. 112.

Arthur Herzog. The B.S. Factor: The Theory and Technique of Faking It in America. (1973) Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books Inc., 1974. p. 22.

Iris Murdoch, reported in The Times. Quoted in Arthur Herzog. The B.S. Factor: The Theory and Technique of Faking It in America. (1973) Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books Inc., 1974. p. 202.

Manohar Shyam Joshi. The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules. Translated from the Hindi by Robert E. Hueckstedt. New Delhi, India: Penguin, 2009. p. 154.

“Thinking like a child.” Mo Willems, as told to Visi Tilak. Boston Globe Magazine. June 14, 2015. p. 10.

Richard Saul Wurman, interviewed by Nadine Epstein, “In Search of the God of Understanding.” Moment Magazine, Sept/Oct 2013, p. 31.

Sharad P. Paul. Cool Cut. London: Picador, 2007. p. 145.

"Playwriting Quick and Dirty." Julie Jensen. Printed in The Writer's Handbook, 1998 Edition. Ed. Sylvia K. Burack. Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1997. p. 422.

Amin Maalouf, Balthasar's Odyssey (2000) Translated from the French by Barbara Bray. New York: Arcade, 2002. p. 50.


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