There is a particular comfort that comes from being certain. We can shut out the world, with all of its noise and confusion. And we rest in the assurance that we are right.
Except that certainty rarely contains the whole story. Certainty is the death of curiosity. For writers it limits us to our preconceived notions of the way things are.
For example, let’s say we are writing a story from the point of view of a serial killer. This would require us to wonder about the nature of a serial killer. It would also require dropping any preconceived ideas of what it would mean to be one. Are serial killers necessarily unkind, anti-social, a constant threat, and so on?
There can be a desire to distance ourselves from antagonistic forces. Real inquiry disrupts certainty, forcing us to confront areas we might rather avoid, but will likely lead to a clearer and more specific relationship to the story.
Though the serial killer example may be extreme, there are lots of situations that may cause us to feel uncomfortable: infidelity, cruelty to others, dishonesty, people who don’t use their signal light in traffic, etc. When we inquire into the nature of these things, and we question our assumptions, our story has a chance to live.
For those of us writing memoir, perceptions of our family invariably inform our work. This can sometimes be an area where we may hold tightly to our ‘story’, and dammit, nobody is going to change our mind.
But there’s a difference between certainty and knowing. A fundamental knowing is like a steady rock beat. It is unwavering. Knowing is the result of persistent inquiry. It contains all paradox. Knowing lives beyond our ‘idea’ of the thing. It has been road-tested against reality. When one knows, there is no need to argue or defend.
With certainty there is a white-knuckle quality, an unwillingness to hold one’s beliefs to the test for fear of the outcome. When we know something to be true, we do not fear being wrong, but are more interested in the nature of ‘why’ it is true.
Knowing arises at the level of theme. It has been proven over and over again. It is universal law. We know that the truth sets us free, that pride comes before a fall, and that crime doesn’t pay. And because we know these things, we can allow the story to play out as it wishes, because eventually our characters will be led to these truths.
When we let go of being certain and approach our story from a place of knowing, our preconceptions fall away.
Let me know your thoughts.