Doubt is like a divining rod; it begins to tug when it nears something fertile and fluid and underground.

Engaging with literary blogs, I’m often struck by the assuredness with which certain reviewers and critics argue their readings. It’s tempting to suspect a needy side to these writers, as though they need to find something wilfully different to say, to illuminate the right and righteous way, to prove that their understanding is superior to everyone else’s – even to the point of misreading a text. So it was with great pleasure that I came across Stacey D’Erasmo’s essay The Uses of Doubt.

However, if you can stand it, doubt is very useful in that it asks for a conscious commitment to art. This is no small task. It’s infinitely preferable to feel swept up, to feel required in some way, to feel that you know you are The One. But art, arguably, is better when it doesn’t know, and I think the artist is better as well in a conscious state of not-knowing. Art is not, by definition, a sure thing. Buying real estate in certain neighborhoods is a sure thing. Being a certain kind of lawyer is a sure thing. Making art is making a conscious commitment to uncertainty, to risk, to unpredictability. Doubt tells you that this is so, and it is. Doubt requires the writer to say, “I do this because I wish to.” Not because I must, or because I am certain of a reward, or because I know it will be a work of genius. Simply, because I desire it.

I never quite trust those who say they ‘must’ write, that it’s as vital to them as food. Maybe they should try starving – and I mean really starving, not just fasting for a couple of days on a so-called cleansing diet.

D’Erasmo’s whole piece is worth reading, as well as the other essays available at her website.


3 thoughts on “Literary certainty

  1. Lee 15 years ago

    Hi Nick, Art has a good point about obsession, and there does seem to be an obsessive side to many writers, and artists in general. Perhaps that type of personality comes first and then searches out its form of expression. I suppose I could call myself a serial obsessive – at one stage, for example, it was gardening, particularly roses and heritage tomatoes. And of course when you have the chaos of five young children, as I once did, you try to impose order rather obsessively on that chaos. If not certainty, at least it provides a ‘certain’ measure of security.

    And maybe it’s even simpler: we who need to control can control the world with our words; indeed build whole worlds.

    The interesting thing is how seldom I actually enjoy the process of writing – at moments, yes, and then it’s not even pleasure but a kind of release from all sensation and thought, a fleeting yet timeless state touched by something almost like a grace. Afterwards, there can be satisfaction; swiftly upon it, doubt.

    The magnifying function of the online medium – Art, what a wonderful idea!

  2. Art Durkee 15 years ago

    That’s that fine line between necessity and obsession, perhaps. I find it necessary to be creative, and I also enjoy it more than most other activities.

    In terms of the assurance and certainty of the critics and reviewers, I’ve often wondered if the thirst for certainty isn’t an attempt to find order in a chaotic world, to find certainty in an uncertain world. Your life may be unmanageable and falling apart, so you impose certainty where you have the power to do so.

    I’m (ahem) certain that this isn’t always the case, but for some literary folks I think it really is. It is for some poet/critics I could name, at least.

    But the truth is, for many writers, they do it because during some part of the process they like doing it. The “must” might follow from there.

    I also think that people speak forcefully and with certainty online than they ever do face to face. It’s a function of the medium to magnify, so an authoritative tone seems stronger than maybe it really is.

  3. Nick Green 15 years ago

    Good point about ‘must’ writing there. I would say that writing for me is as vital as real ale. Extremely enjoyable, but one can do too much of it.