The following essay was first published as “Confronting the Limitations: Crafting the Unknown in Non-Fiction” by Fairleigh Dickinson University in 2008 as part of the graduate thesis earning Samuel Saint Thomas his terminal MFA degree in Creative Non-fiction.
Making sense of the vast mystery of human experience is akin to, as Alan Watts says, “…sending someone a parcel of water in the mail,” as if one is “trying to get the water of life into neat permanent packages” (13). Thomas E. Kennedy states that ”…to ignore the fact that life is one great unanswered question composed of a myriad of other mostly unanswered smaller ones” will render writing that is “…wooden, shallow, and unreal” (115). The unanswered presents a foundational challenge in the subjects and themes that a writer chooses truthfully to explore and express.
Memory is a murky tarn. Momentary perceptions are fleeting. Tomorrow is a mere belief. There is much that one does not know and much that one cannot know. In “An Essay on Man,” Alexander Pope writes, “…this due degree / Of blindness, weakness, / Heav’n bestows on thee. / Submit…” Pope submits to the mystery that “All nature is but art, unknown to thee; / All chance, direction, which thou canst not see…” (284-291). Indeed, the mysteries of love, pain, or death are too far beyond human grasp to bring more than bits and fragments into certain existential understanding and comprehension. It follows that, as writers, we must acknowledge this conclusion. If we as writers acknowledge the extent of unknown in human experience, it follows that the text will also acknowledge the unknown, whether directly or implicitly. Of all the challenges to a writer’s craft, making the unknown stuff of life in some way tangible for the reader is paramount. In dealing with the unknown, the writer must first confront this limitation, then employ creative techniques to show the unknown, even if by indirection. I intend, then, to consider the matters that the limits of human comprehension conceal from us.
To confront and conceive of this limitation requires critical thinking and examination. If, as Socrates says, “An unexamined life is not worth living,” I would posit that an unexamined event, experience, character, or thought is not worth writing about. For how, except by examination, can we know we are peering over the rim into the unknown? How do we know that we are knowing and not simply speculating or pretending to know? A writer must examine what he can know and how he can know it.
I am not pursuing this examination simply as a philosophic inquiry. I am employing the method of philosophic questioning for the sake of the craft of writing. Contemporary essayist Phillip Lopate asserts, “…whether memoir or personal essay, the heart of the matter often shines through those passages where the writer analyzes the meaning of his or her experience” (144). This way of analysis is not new. Plato, Montaigne, Descartes, Nietzsche, and many others approached their creative nonfiction thus. I suggest that the writer begin his analysis with an empirical inquiry as a pathway to craft.
Immanuel Kant states it as such: “There can be no doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience. For how should our faculty of knowledge be awakened into action…?” (301) Consider this elementary anecdote. I detect a noise in the night that sounds woody, rhythmic, and exterior. My heart rate increases; I think someone is outside my house prowling about. The cause is unknown. But after examination, I find that my senses have informed my reason of a slapping shutter; reason sends me back to bed with the certain cause. Certainly, the unknown in human condition runs far deeper into the unanswered than a slapping shutter; nevertheless, empirical inquiry is the starting place for knowledge that informs the writer.
John Locke writes, “I would have anyone try to fancy any taste which had never affected his palate, or frame the idea of a scent he had never smelt: and when he can do this, I will also conclude that a blind man hath ideas of colors” (296). Indeed, the sensorium brings the writer justified knowledge that makes for powerful description in narrative. However, to give Kennedy the supple, deep, and real text he argues for, a writer may do more than describe what is known; he may confront the mystery and craft it as unknown. By inquiring through the senses of what is known and what can be known, one is lead by deduction to the unknown. This affords the writer the same certainty to name a mystery a mystery as to name an apple an apple.
As a writer probes these mysteries, ranging from the universe to human emotions, he begins to encounter types of the unknown. In confronting human forgetfulness, one first finds the unknown in the narrative past, encompassing a myriad of missing links in past experiences, behaviors, and their causes. Thus the writer crafts narration that mirrors or exhibits the limitations of memory. Second, in confronting momentary actions, he finds the unknown in the action of the narrative present that flashes across the senses that he cannot or fails to grasp. Accordingly, the writer crafts narration that shows the human limitations in perceiving the present. Finally, a third category of the unknown, the narrative future, emerges in confronting the unknown of all that is to come as the present merges with the future, or all the possible experiences that may be moving toward the present moment.
How we textualize these three categories of the unknown is crucial to narrative that resonates with the reader’s unknowns. Some writers admit to the unknown with more candor and respect for empirical knowledge than others do, employing creative strategies that make the mysteries genuine. Unlike the genuine, however, artificial mysteries of the who-done-it variety pretend to comprehend the unknown elements of event and human motive. “These authors,” Kennedy notes, “craft narrative into a neat formula of revelation that seeks to console the reader with the illusion of comprehending, distracting attention from the more elementary, irresolvable mysteries of existence.” To create this illusion, authors concentrate on the solvable puzzle of exposing the killer, eclipsing the blood, violence, and the mystery of death.
In genuine mystery, minus illusion, the narrative reflects genuine dilemma. In his essay collection, Irish Nocturnes, contemporary Irish essayist Chris Arthur weaves descriptive examinations of kingfishers, linen carvers, the pelvis of an unknown creature, a camouflaged corncrake, sheep herding dogs, a castle tunnel, all in an effort to poke and prod at the mysteries of life on the green isle. Arthur’s essays boldly embrace the unknown realistically, rather than artificially. They exhibit, as you will see, what Lopate refers to as “…quality of thinking, …depth of insight, and the willingness to wrest as much understanding as the writer is humanly capable of arriving at” (145).
Others, such as Spalding Gray, use humor to address this limited knowledge, and craft what is unknown as a frightful insecurity. Diane di Prima crafts mystery poetically as black, white, or spinning. Hunter S. Thompson chooses not to confront or reflect on the mystery at all, but to keep the narrative action moving along against an unexplained background of blankness. Still other writers narrate the unknown as an omniscient God, while still others speculate with psychological theories. Let’s see how they do it then, this business of confronting and crafting.
The Narrative Past
While it is possible for the mind to collect a considerable amount of description useful for the writer’s craft, our ability to gather, store, and remember things has limits. To fix the narrative past firmly in the mind is not possible; thus, the writer must confront the mystery surrounding his experiences, behaviors, and their causes, to make them tangible to his readers. To play therapist for a moment, I’d like to call it SCD, the Swiss-Cheese-Disorder. Missing links in the past make it seem as though experiences have dribbled out through holes in the brain. Who has not opened a box of old photos and tried in vain to recall the specifics of a snapshot? And who can clearly convey a simple dialogue, even from last week without the aid of a recorder? Memory is undependable. Even simple conversations tend to elude us as we sit at our desks over the blank page. Much of the specifically detailed events recounted in memoirs such as Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, or Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, read more like an invention than a remembrance.
In Swimming to Cambodia, Gray writes, “When I was in therapy two years ago, one day I noticed that I hadn’t had any children” (33). The narrator gives no evidence of what may have brought on this thought, simply, “…one day I noticed.” His confrontation has challenged him to make his wonder tangible: “…I like children at a distance. I wondered if I’d like them up close. I wondered why I didn’t have any. I wondered if it was a mistake, or if I’d done it on purpose, or what” (33). Nothing more is shown than the obvious fact that his memory is intrinsically faulty. Perhaps he is perplexed with his faulty consciousness. In support of what he thinks he should know, he relays an anecdote: his therapist’s genitals were shot at in the war, he knows why he has no children. The narrator has examined the knowledge that was empirically gathered and is left with what little he knows of himself. He is left with a case of wonder concerning his past.
Gray examines how fatherhood could have escaped him for such a long time. Why he had not thought of having children before is unknown and unavailable. What Gray does textually to convey the unknown of his narrative past is to express a sense of honest wonderment in specific word choice that shows the mystery. Given his tone and consistent voice of neurotic dilemma throughout the expanse of his works, we see that certain thoughts are clearly hidden from him about his narrative past. Because of his human condition, the reader (at least this reader) empathizes with Gray’s mystery and is able to participate in the experience.
Some fourteen years later, in Morning Noon and Night, Gray writes with much the same questioning voice of unknowingness. “‘How did I get here?’ Never in my wildest soothsayer-fantasy-fortune-teller-imagination-dreams did I think, at age fifty-six, that I would recreate my original family…. I didn’t know I wanted to have a child until I first held him in my arms,” he writes (4). Here he asks the classic question, “why,” and finds no evidence at hand. He admits the mystery head-on. Whatever answers he seeks are unknown in his narrative past. Although an author can pretend to know a myriad of things from his past, and even their causes, a reader who is aware of his own unknowns will not buy it.
The nonfiction writer, in crafting his memory of the past, may take the risk and liberty to dishonestly fictionalize it. Geoff Dyer asserts that the line between fiction and nonfiction is ambiguous. When asked why his book, Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, was seen as nonfiction, he replied, “It’s a distinction that means absolutely nothing to me. I like to write stuff that’s only an inch from life, from what really happened, but all the art is of course in that inch” (Dyer). Perhaps Dylan and McCourt would agree.
David Sedaris crafts a bit more than an inch beyond the limits in knowing his past. In Naked, as an adult looking back decades to his disordered childhood, Sedaris writes this of the voices in his head: “Shouldn’t you be upstairs making sure there are really one hundred and fourteen peppercorns left in that small ceramic jar? And, hey, while you’re up there, you might want to check the iron and make sure it’s not setting fire to the baby’s bedroom” (12). I am supposing that he is not actually hearing voices as sound but rather is saying that he remembers his parents’ voices. To say that he can recall details to that extent seems implausible, yet Sedaris takes the liberty to push the boundaries of traditional nonfiction by pretending to know, as do the who-done-it authors, sometimes to fantastic levels.
Occasionally the past does yield truth, in slices it would seem, rarely full stories. Pieces of the elapsed make their appearances as shafts of light. What can the writer do with these? In his essay “Invasions,” Chris Arthur examines the mystery of memory and finds it a cryptic space, occasionally yielding up fragments that impose on his thoughts. “If our yesterdays drop like stones in the mind’s unfathomable waters, sinking ever deeper as they are shorn of the fleeting buoyancy of the present, these periodic invasions seem to reverse the process” (91). To wit, time has a way of effecting change on what we thought was fixed: that kiss, that concert, picnic, Van Gogh at the Met. “Occasionally these revenants are so bloated with time and distance that they are almost unrecognizable…” (91). Arthur examines and crafts patiently, waiting for “…one of the many splinters” upon which to build what becomes text. (91)
A writer is not always certain, however, that these splinters have emerged from the vaults of experience. They could be, as Arthur posits, ‘”Imagined Biographies’” or “pseudo-memories… in the imagination’s fertile echo-chambers” (94). This complicates things for the writer, especially for the memoirist. Sorting out the fictional from the factual makes for a burdensome task. In addition to close critical thinking toward accuracy, the writer may, as Sedaris or Dylan does, choose to allow the line between fact and fiction to blur. The writer may choose to inform the reader of this very dilemma in his choice of words, asking a question so as to admit ignorance of a thing unknown. By admitting ‘I’m not so sure,’ ‘I assume,’ ‘I imagine,’ ‘I’d like to think,’ and so on, he takes on the voice of a wondering narrator, one with human characteristics.
The writer may even choose to craft text in a dreamlike voice, as a theatrical voice is echoed to achieve the same effect. In an email conversation with Arthur, I asked what writing techniques he found helpful in the crafting of these unknowns. He suggested “it’s a case of looking for metaphors, images, stories, and symbols coupled with periodic reminders to myself and readers that words don’t work beyond a certain extent.” So then, it is both what is seen and unseen, decipherable and indecipherable that shapes the work. But the “certain extent” to which he refers is what the author must grapple with. Arthur notes that Joseph Brodsky, in his essay, Less than One, said, “As failures go, attempting to recall the past is like trying to grasp the meaning of existence. Both make one feel like a baby clutching at a basketball: one’s palms keep sliding off.”
This limited grasping of the past may be addressed in the development of a fictional character as well. The narrator chooses to show this limitation, and mirrors real minds of real people with real memory banks. In fiction, of course, the writer has license to fabricate what is known of the past. If this fabrication, however, pushes the character beyond what the human is capable of, ignoring the mystery of which Kennedy speaks, the narrative will show woodeness, unless the fiction writer creates a character that is self-deceived. For the nonfiction writer, crafting the mysteries of the past is more significant in the creation of text that shows the depths of the unknown in true characters. Whereas Gray and Arthur make this depth tangible to their readers, Sedaris loads us up with what seems to be pretended memory. Just how much he pretends we may never know.
The Narrative Present
In an empirical examination of momentary actions in a narrative’s ongoing present, we find the unknown as well. What can we know about what is going on? What is possible for us to grasp from sensory experience? As Kant says, the search begins with experience. So we ask: Can our faculties of sense and reason confirm the thought or behavior? Does the narrator’s thinking correlate with things in the real world? If the answers to these types of questions are no answer, we have ventured into the unknown. We are looking for clear knowledge of passionate experiences to convey tangibly to our readers. So we work our way empirically by deduction beyond the unknown. Inevitably we are confronted with unknowns of the present.
In Memoirs of a Beatnik, Diane di Prima narrates the flux of life at hand. This is what is so seductive about her writing. Readers enjoy the chance to reflect on and identify with her embrace of insecurity. Readers know that state of mind well. She overtly admits to the confrontation with the unknown of the present, narrating experience after experience, yet not analyzing the cause of the human condition. Not long after she arrives in New York City, she has her first sexual experience. No extended examination of what it meant to lose one’s virginity, rather, “Well, here I was. …this is only the first of many strange apartments I’ll be waking up in” (4). Here, early in the book, she sets a tone for embracing the mystery. There is no voice of sad despair, no sense of regret, rather it is one of relaying clearly what she sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches.
di Prima’s account is a romp, from her innocent arrival in the big city to the eventual fading of the Beats. She describes well, the streets, apartments, parties, poets, drugs, jazz clubs, sexual encounters. But she does not attempt to narrate or craft what is unknown. Instead, she basks in and relishes the mystery of it all with poetic device. Returning to New York City from a farm upstate, with “long twilights,” “worn out sofas,” and plenty of “passing the grass,” she ends up sleeping on park benches (110). She takes a job running a bookstore; not aware the arrangement includes a strung-out visitor named Luke. Daybreak finds her in the belly of passion, abandonment, and ecstasy. There the narrator is confronted by mystery at the edge of certainty.
di Prima is experiencing an emotional unknown that she is not able to describe without poetic voice. “…and I heard a voice that I realized must be my own filling the room with short, stabbing animal cries as I slipped into darkness” (125). What is unknown in her present narrative experience cannot be named as certainty; she borrows a physical ‘darkness’ as metaphor to show her futile attempt at mental clarity. Where Gray uses the questioning voice, di Prima employs poetics. Any words she could attach to the experience would be inadequate to capture the whole experience. It would in fact weigh the narration down. Empirically, di Prima examines what is happening to and around her. What is certain and known to the narrator is crisply described –the texture of hair, softness of the skin, the beads of sweat, the folds of clothing- while the words for the unknown are abstract.
Just as the magnificence of a canyon’s view or the perplexity of love’s demise is beyond words, so the magnificent sensorium of the skin is unknown and beyond description for di Prima. And rightly so. The skin is the exterior nervous system of the body, and when excited, sends millions of signals to the brain every second. Unlike objects in the world, defined by certain shapes, colors, and textures, neural sensations of, say, an orgasm, defy the narrator’s ability to describe. “The roar of the waves slowly recede leaving me high and dry on a white beach, in a blinding white light,” she writes (125). The black has turned to white; the wet of the waves has turned to dry sand. Whether a physiological unknown or chemically induced concealment, the narrator has certainty of her uncertainty. She intends for the reader to see her uncertainty.
di Prima shows the reader that she knows even less what Luke is feeling. She is confronted with the unknown in his eyes when she notices “the glint of consciousness slowly returned to them” (125). “‘God,’ he said hoarsely, in his indistinct undertone. ‘God, I think I love you’” (126). Luke is looking for some way to describe the feelings that have confronted him and that are out of his descriptive reach. The narrator calls for him to hush, “For to name it was to make it less than it was” (126). Love, the amorous thought or emotion, she implies, is the unknown wandering place of the mind that is better left as it is, unknown and mysterious, otherwise, the real becomes plastic and sentimental.
True to limited knowledge, the narrator cannot grasp the particulars of pain in her narrative present either. While being forced into a sexual situation with Serge, she says to herself, “I might as well” (68). She wonders how much it will hurt. “Not a whole lot,” she thinks (68). She finds no certainty when confronted with the measurement of pain, and “Anyway, it didn’t seem that I had much choice,” she says (68). There is mystery here in the word seem. She wasn’t certain if she had a choice or not. Was it her appetite or Serge’s? The details are unknown to the narrator; therefore, they are necessarily left unknown to the reader. Afterward, she writes of the unknown, “I pulled up my pants… zippered them… straightened my hair… Serge kissed me…” and “I patted his arm” (69).
After collecting herself, she reflects on the experience as “…a strange and brief orgasm. …driving all thoughts out of my head” (69). di Prima is once again confronting the unknown. I imagine they experienced many thoughts and emotions during their exchange; few of them, however, could be named as other than a mystery. The narrator identifies that her thoughts are still in her mind, “…but in some deep place, quite out of reach, like the boulder at the bottom of a lake” (69). Here the narrator employs the device of direct statement about her unknown thoughts, saying they are “out of reach,” deeply hidden beyond human ability to be retrieved. As we shall see later, even the meaning and future of the beats will remain a mystery for di Prima.
Hunter S. Thompson admits much of the same is unknown in his pursuit of what he refers to as the “American dream” in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It would seem that Thompson’s objective is to explore, question, and balance himself on the edge of survival with the oft repeated, “How long can we maintain?” (5). Thompson and his attorney are speeding to Las Vegas in a rented red convertible when the two stop to pick up a young hitchhiker. “There was no sound from the back seat,” Thompson writes (5). The narrator grasps a few details. The kid was nervous, stared when talked to, and didn’t even blink. “’Can you hear me?’” Thompson yells (6). Still nothing. Thompson speculates, “…the boy’s face was a mask of pure fear and bewilderment” (6). Here Thompson chooses the word mask carefully. The only certainty of the boy’s thinking was the look on his face, what was behind the mask was only believed to be one of fear. Nothing else is known of the kid; he jumps from the car and disappears into the desert.
Thompson attempts no deeper analysis of the boy; only what was obvious. He empirically examines; he looks at the boy’s face and listens for his sound, grappling with the unknown in the ongoing action of the narrative. He shows this with: “Do you follow me?” and “Our vibrations were getting nasty–but why? I was puzzled, frustrated. Was there no communication in this car?” (08) He gives to the reader all that he knows, albeit, not more than a facial expression. Thompson’s intention here is to invite the reader to participate in the puzzle of the mystery kid. If a reader wants to play in his own imagination, so be it. The film version plays on the viewer’s imagination, suggesting that the boy’s fear (as is the viewer’s) is driven by Thompson’s insane behavior.
Much of what happens in the moment is unknown, a true to life flurry of behaviors, emotions, dialogue, and sensory experiences. If a writer does not examine, put on his empirical eyeglasses, he may -in error- name mystery as fact, belief as knowledge. Sedaris recalls in his story, “Old Faithful,” that when he was twelve, his dad said to him, “‘I want you to know that I’ve never once cheated on your mother.’” A friend stated that that indicated he had a guilty conscience. The narrator disagreed: “I knew that she was wrong. More likely my father was having some problem at work and needed to remind himself that he was not completely worthless.” But he does not know that with certainty. Unlike Thompson or Gray, Sedaris avoids the mystery, that of knowing if his father was telling the truth, possibly one of the most difficult mysteries to confront and embrace.
While it is important for the writer -and for his craft- to understand human behavior, it is also important for him to rise above mere psychoanalytic speculation, to rise above what he believes to be known to what is known. Admittedly, we do not write in a vacuum. Literature, as all art, evolves historically alongside scientific movements of thought such as Psychology. The post-therapeutic form -reflections penned following therapy- has perhaps given memoir its upsurge in recent years. But this form can render wooden scientific characters organized by their handicaps, created by writers in lab coats. If a writer chooses to ignore the mysteries of the spirited human, conjecturing with the authority of a psychologist, he may lack the evidence his narrator needs to make a case. In turn, if a writer speculates behavior or emotion, he crafts text as speculation rather than knowledge.
Other writers claim to know even more, even to know all. When the unknown is confronted, a writer can pretend to know without any empirical evidence. As John Gardner states, “They play God as they might play King Claudius, by putting on a cape” (158). It “can vary with writers and with historical periods,” Walter Cummins states, “…Victorian authors who used omniscient point of view believed they could tell readers a great deal about their characters’ thoughts and the sources of their behavior.” In nonfiction as well, writers often make it up as they go, motives, thoughts, and all. More recently, the omniscient voice has given way to a lesser knowing of the mysteries.
Kennedy writes, “…Gardner suggests that growing doubt of the existence of God or objective truth was accompanied by mistrust of the author-omniscient technique…” (132). Cummins explains that “the modernists crafted a limited point of view,” and that “…Jamesian central intelligences, the inner nature of human beings was more mysterious” (Cummins). What writer, especially the nonfiction writer, can say that he knows all, to suggest there are no human mysteries? There may be a fuzzy area where one narrator may know more than another but both still speak within the range of believability. I suggest that to be an intelligent writer, one make a deductive empirical inquiry of the unknown in the narrative present, and when confronted with the unknown, craft it as such, showing the writer’s rendezvous with mystery.
The Narrative Future
Beyond the narrative present, of course, is the narrative future that comes as the present unfolds toward fruition. A myriad of things could happen; many of them will not. While one has free will, it remains relative to unknown factors. Darkness will always begin at the end of a flood of light, whereas death is a certain unknown. The unknown in the narrative future cannot be known until it appears in the light of knowledge. What is believed may be true or false, but never true until sense and reason confirm it. The most abstract ideas attest to this: God, the devil, love, happiness, darkness, and the most unknown of all, death. This kind of unknown must be confronted and crafted in narrative as angst, fear, speculation, excitement, or wonder, but not fact.
di Prima, reading Howl for the first time, says, it “… put a certain heaviness in me…” (176). And when the Number Six, Amsterdam, pad was breaking up, “…changes started going down around us thicker and heavier than ever. …it just began to have that air about it… air that had not been stirred” (177). Her confrontation with mystery is crafted with the words thicker and heavier, and as air, the poetic language of mystery as the narrative future begins to appear. The narrator cannot know what will unfold, what will become of her, her lovers, or Ginsberg and the Beats. Whether love, a familiar living space, or the ideology of a beatnik flat, “…that particular island is no longer, … and suddenly it’s like living in a morgue…” (177). She intends for us to know her loss, the death of things that were once known and the unknown future. The author peers into the darkness of the future.
Chris Arthur crafts the mystery of memories, present moments, and what is to come, even darkness itself, with more profundity than any of the authors I surveyed. In “Linen” he contemplates the past while engaged with a photograph. “Although it is impossible to tell for sure, I like to think that the linen carver spread out on the desk on which I am writing is the same one that my great-grandmother is holding in the photograph” (4). The words ‘for sure’ and ‘I like to think’ indicate lack of certainty, crafted honestly. Using a questioning voice, he crafts the narrative future in “Meditations on the Pelvis of an Unknown Animal.” He wonders, when one dies, whether one is more than simply human remains. “Is the timbre of their individual voices still sounding somewhere in the incredible symphony of existence?” (113). The question finds no answer.
Arthur’s essay, “In the Dark” is perhaps the most sustained example of crafting the unknown in his Irish Nocturnes collection. Shane’s Castle, on the inland shore of a Northern Irish sea, is “…the perfect place to test a fear of darkness,” Arthur writes (40). While working a stint there as a warden, he “discovered just how frightening the dark can be” (40). Here, early in the essay, Arthur shows that he is faced with the unknown. He writes with frankness, admitting fright. With great description, Arthur depicts the absolutely dark tunnel leading from the castle ruins to a graveyard, the supernatural folklore, the dungeons, the wailing banshee ghost, severed head apparition, pouring rain, all in an effort to invite the reader along on his journey to confront the unknown.
As for the ghost, “To hear it is to die, or go insane…” (41). The apparition is said to have a “…bloody severed head… [that] appears on the stonework like a grotesque tattoo…” (41). With such thoughts in his mind, Arthur performed his duty of tunnel watch, which he chose to do at midnight. He had not expected to experience fear, assuming “that being afraid in the dark had vanished about the same time as milk teeth” (41). He admits there was no known evidence of his fear, but rather, “…it started with a sense of there being something behind me” (42). Here he uses the word sense, as in perhaps, a sixth sense. In a profound way, Arthur identifies the possibilities, a suspicion, a hunch if you will, a speculation on the uncertain narrative future.
At first, though, Arthur was excited about the unknown, “fascinated to be surrounded by absolute darkness, …tottering on the brink of disintegration” (44). Fascination morphed into fear of the worst kind. “Each midnight run I attempted was fraught with terror” (45). I reached out for something. Was I falling? Was something falling on me? Was I being followed? “Was it laughter? Screaming? …it was unclear, indecipherable” (45). The human eye, ear, and hand have given perimeters. Beyond these perimeters, the human encounters the illegible. Arthur points out this human limitation in his narrative.
It is most important that the author chooses a syntax that admits to this mystery. Powerful and precise nouns and verbs that represent human frailty, limitation, and unreadability do well to further the synthesis of the writer’s and reader’s human condition. Arthur’s prolific admission to the unknown future is evident in phrases such as, “Sometimes it felt… I had an overwhelming sense… perhaps the whole tunnel was going to collapse… a small, ancient voice asked” (45). He employs the exposition of his thoughts as well. When referring to the folkloric legends that spooked the castle history he writes, “Sometimes stories about the place suddenly invaded my consciousness and filled me with a sense of formless evil…” but “…there was nothing there on which such fantasies could be grounded” (45). His empirical examination has yielded up personal truth and writing that speaks to that truth as well.
Even more effective is Arthur’s reflection. Looking back on his experience of these mysteries of the dark in the resolving paragraphs of “In the Dark,” Arthur writes this: “Like silence and empty space, darkness underlines our lonely vulnerability, our smallness in the face of cosmic forces over which we have no control” (46). Here, on confronting the mysteries of the dark, he points to the profound nature of our existence. He does not attempt a knowing, omniscient voice, nor does he speculate with psychological theories. He crafts his prose with truth and admission of frailty. “Such existential emphases are heavy with the kind of unanswerable questions which a wise person, mindful of contentment, will not ponder for too long” (46).
Death, indeed the most unknown of all existential inquiries, is the unanswerable question, that, if pondered too long, brings certain discontent. Of all the ideas bound in the approaching future, death is the absolute unknown. Spalding Gray reflects on this mystery in Gray’s Anatomy. While swimming, he nearly drowns. He cries, “HELLLLLLLLLLLLLLP! I’M DROWNING! HELP, I’M GETTING MARRIED! HELP, I’M GROWING OLD! HELP, I’M GOING BALD! HELP, I’M GOING BLIND! HELP I’M GOING TO DIE!…” (77). This is the cry of every person when confronted with all that is uncertain in life. The strength of his seductive dialogue brings to life the fear, faith crisis, loss, possible loss, fragility, and deterioration intrinsic to his reader’s humanness.
Ultimately, Gray fears the greatest of the unknowns. In Morning Noon and Night he asks, “So what do I tell my boys when they come to me with their questions on death?” (123) Dialogue is his best device, as if to say, “There, I said it, I am afraid, and I’m not afraid to admit it.” His son, Forrest, asked about death. Gray told him that we all know it’s going to happen but “no one really believes it” (123). The unknown knowledge of death, in that no one has come back with a report, is not an unknown easily confronted, or easily crafted. The idea of not existing forever “…just wipes [Gray] out” (122). Gray’s text is overt with perplexity of the future, void of any knowing of death other than a state of not. Like a chicken having his head severed. “…The whole bird will never know what it is to not be” (122).
As Gray shows, a writer can only name death as a mystery, as unknown, as concealed by human condition. Gray is honest with what he can know of his narrative future, truthful with his confrontation of nothingness, crafting it as such, making his perplexities tangible to the reader. Neither does Gray attempt the fantasy of a mind outside the body. “…I will never know not being here,” he says (122). But can he say he will never know? Even that is shut off from human comprehension. When a writer approaches the magnificence of the unknown, the only thing left to name is the edge. A writer can write about thinking about floating above his body, but not about floating, simply because the act of floating has not been verified. Likewise, a writer can write about thinking about the mystery of death but not about death in itself. Even if he believes to have had a near death experience, it still remains a conjecture.
The Unknown as Spur
As I have tried to make evident, a writer, upon checking with the senses, is often faced with the writing block of empirical limitation. He grapples with crafting the unknown; there are no words in sight, darkness, if you will. Beyond the sensorium as source for knowledge, the writer will be confronted with things he does not and cannot know. The murky tarn of memory will challenge the writer’s craft in narrating the past in making tangible the momentary life of the narrative present, and in the wait for what may or may not come in the narrative future. The more that artistic craft embraces human limitations and frailties, the more successful a writer will be at making the unknown tangible in text. Narrative that exposes this mystery is most believable because it mirrors real human experience. To write from the shaky stage of speculation, pretension, or belief is to risk the “wooden, shallow, and unreal.”
Authors that I have examined here confront, examine, and respond diligently to the unknown is their only source of knowledge, honestly and feebly poking at the darkness for some truth of existence. diPrima embraces the unknown without any sense of provocation. She crafts a voice that perhaps even celebrates the mysteries she encounters. Thompson’s writing engages its reader seductively. Pages later, sometimes chapters later, the reader is left wondering about this or that character, event, or behavior. Although Gray may be troubled deeply by unanswered questions, he takes the edge off his narration with humor, as if to say, “What’s there to do about it? I don’t know. I am a troubled human being. I am left with no answers.” Turning limitation on its head, he seems to enjoy mystery and wonder. Perhaps, as Chris Arthur, Gray is trying to find some wisdom in the insecurity.
I am now enjoying this dance with mystery in my own struggles as a writer. My early writings, riddled with the unknowns of human condition, are no longer problematic to me. Now, in writing of Simone biting my hand at the spaghetti party, I say, “Why the hell would you do that?” I craft the question, but no answer. Later in the essay I reflect: “And me, I’m sitting here writing essays and pondering, not too seriously, why Simone chose to bite me. Why me? If to get my attention, or attention at all, she was successful. If to gather my affection, she was not.” That is where I leave it, the cause of her behavior is unknown, only slightly speculated.
Once, I had the experience of a midnight drive with “Moon” to her family cabin. There was pouring rain. The place was deep in the woods, surrounded by howling timber wolves. Worse, I barely knew the girl. My experience was soaked in unknowns. Indeed, I would write about it. It came as no surprise that it was difficult to describe my fear, anxiety, risk, and desire. However, I kept to describing things, such as how “I’d parked the car a certain way, lights headed down the mountain, so I could take off through the woods. I had the idea that I was being smart. …I was thinking about the possibilities of things going wrong. What if some mountain guys broke in? We’d need an escape plan.” As with Arthur’s dark tunnel, going into the dark with Moon yielded its share of unknowns, both physically and mentally.
In my interview with him, I asked Arthur whether he had ever encountered a thing, a feeling, or otherwise, that he couldn’t put to text. He pointed to a passage from “Malcolm Unraveled,” one of his essays in Irish Haiku, replying, “Yes, we can say something…, but the words keep slipping off, there is a sense of the essential nature of the moment escaping…. Perversely, it is just this sense that acts like a spur, making me search for the unreachable, impossible grail of a description that might somehow capture the uncatchable.” Yes, there are mysteries and unknowns of the past, present, and future kinds that can possess a writer to pursue knowing even the smallest slice of mystery in the beyond. Knowing and writing is a writer’s means of survival. Certainly, the limitations weigh heavily on his curiosities. But that doesn’t mean the writer can’t stand at the edge and grope at the chasm and wrestle with words. In the likely event he learns little or nothing new of the mystery, no doubt the writer will become increasingly skilled at describing it.
“Man is a mystery. This mystery must be solved, and even if you pass your entire life solving it, do not say you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery because I want to be a man.” F. Dostoevski
A Special Thanks to:
Dr. Thomas Kennedy, Thesis Mentor
Dr. Walter Cummins, Second Reader
Martin Donoff, Director
Dr. Martin Green, Chair
Fairleigh Dickinson University
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Arthur, Chris. Email interview with the author. 10-15 March. 2005.
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Cummins, Walter. E-mail to the author. 05 Feb. 2004.
Dyer, Geoff. Interview with Pantheon staff. Absolute Write. 2003. 13 December 2004 <http://www.absolutewrite.com/novels/geoff_dyer.htm>.
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