A little beyond tenth grade, but the same principles and methods apply

So I’ve been absent for a couple of weeks, afflicted with what the New York Times has accurately called languishing. Just a general sense of ehh… Part of that comes from having been finished with one project but not yet having another. Part comes from my most current batch of books, which should have been here three weeks ago, having finally been shipped on the 24th… but with UPS being overwhelmed by the holidays, their tracking website doesn’t think the boxes have even left the printing plant yet. And part comes from what I was writing about before my hiatus: will what I’ve written be troubling or offensive or difficult for my friends and neighbors and family to hear? I told Nora a couple of days ago that I feel like a child operating heavy machinery; I could really hurt someone without intending to.

Anyway, Nora read that six-part miniseries I wrote in early December on fiction ethics, and said that she’s really missed that part of my writing, the essayist with his head cocked sideways like a dog, trying to work something out.

She and I are both lapsed academics. We grew up with essays at every other spot in our genetic code, essays are as much a part of us as our hair color or our height. We both love to be enlightened by someone who’s thought through something we’d half considered, or by someone who’s connected something we understand to a whole other ecology we hadn’t seen as related. Connecting the dots reveals a pattern, but deciding which dots to connect is the work of creativity.

Because we are who we are, both of us are both drawn more toward inductive rather than deductive essays. A deductive essay stems from the impulse to say “I know something true; let me demonstrate it to you.” An inductive essay stems from the impulse to say “This phenomenon is confusing; let me see if we can figure it out.” We’re both drawn more toward people who are uncertain, who don’t think they have some master key to the universe’s meaning.

But regardless of whether the originating motive is deductive or inductive, essays (like this one) all have the same goal: improved understanding. The question is whether I’m trying to dispel YOUR misunderstanding, by delivering some truth, or whether I’m trying to dispel MY misunderstanding, by working my way aloud through a problem. Either type of essay is, by its nature, a form aimed at QED, the abbreviation of the Latin quod erat demonstrandum, or “which was to be shown.” The essay accommodates the word therefore in a way that fiction never can. We get somewhere other than where we started, somewhere secure enough to rest for a while.

Fiction, of course, gets us somewhere other than where we started too, but the journey is less stepwise and the destination less stable. In an essay, each tenuous move is cemented into place before we step out onto the next one; in fiction, every move remains tenuous for a long time, the whole rickety thing crying out for some kind of triangulation that’ll make it stiff enough to be trustworthy. Kind of like our own lives. So the fiction writer is working toward some sense of truth as well, but the nature of truth is different than it is in the essay form; less secure, more provisional. The paragraphs don’t snap together like Legos, they sort of mound up like a pile of gravel, the heap ultimately finding its own angle of repose.

A friend in my writing group was talking about Ayn Rand, an essayist who pretended to be a novelist. Her “characters” were never really characters at all, just roles to demonstrate her deductive statements about the ultimate truth of Objectivism. This isn’t surprising—her statements about the nature and function of art made that inevitable. The appropriate role of art, she believed, was to make concepts into percepts: to convert ideas into sensory information that could have emotional weight and thus more points of attachment. Art is a persuasive tool, an essay in drag, coming to a secure QED closure.

And who knows, maybe I do that, too. I believe that kindness is possible. I believe that the ends we set for ourselves can often be blocked, but that desirable alternatives can be fashioned. And my stories follow those beliefs. So maybe I’m just a deductive propagandist, too, not a novelist at all but just another hack inventing percepts that camouflage my concepts. The novel as stalking horse.

More tomorrow.

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