Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Never Ask Why

(In progress: for inclusion in my continuing series of essays...)

Remember your mother's answer to that question, Why?--usually uttered in that whining tone you never knew, as a child, could be so aggravating?  Of course, her answer was...


Or perhaps the more elaborate form: "Because I say so."  

Your mother was wise enough to understand that the question is unanswerable.  Which is why you should never ask it.

Or perhaps, more accurately, it is answerable only in partialities, little glimpses of a truth so large as to be unknowable.  

Why did I sleep so poorly last night?  Well, I did eat that blue cheese at dinner time.  I had a contretemps with my wife.  I was uncomfortable in bed.  There was that racket outside, on the street.  I have some inner turmoil going on, about where exactly I am in my life, and what direction I might need to take.   I'm harboring a complex of hidden fears and doubts that I haven't yet begun to unravel, nor have wished to.  I'm worried about money.   About tomorrow. About what I did or didn't do yesterday...

You see what I mean.  It's endless.

The problem with the question, Why, is that it can be paralyzing.  The answers bounce back and forth in the mind like those shiny steel balls in a pinball game, ricocheting against the rubber boundaries and impediments, triggering bells and flashing lights without achieving anything but a rapidly accumulating score.  Well, with maybe the occasional insight along the way--an insight soon forgotten in the melee.  

The question takes me right into my head when I might more profitably be searching for the answer in my heart.  If it occurs, as it does sometimes, in the act of writing, it's almost sure to block the flow.  You may be as irritated as I am of the by-now tired cliche from the Nike commercial: Just Do It.  But it does, in its own annoying way, have something useful to say to me as a writer.  It's a useful--if, yes, annoying!--answer to those who tell me that they "want to be" a writer.  If I "want to" feed the dog, the dog will surely starve to death before too long.  If you want to be a writer, write.  

I wonder whether scientists ask themselves the question, Why?  I'd rather believe they ask the question, How?  Which is to my mind a broader, more generous, more inclusive question that does not ask for the narrow, reductive, explanatory answer, but opens up, instead, to a multitude of possible--and possibly conflicting--answers.  I do know that for me, as a writer, Why? narrows the field of possibility.  Perhaps that's why I gave up writing mystery novels many years ago.   In a mystery novel, you have to be interested in "motive."  It's the convention.  But even when you get to solving murders, I suspect that motivations are far more complex than mystery writers would have us believe--and eventually unknowable.  

(Any thoughts on the question Why? out there?  I'd love to hear them.  This is still, clearly, as I mentioned, a work in progress.)   

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