The question of “why” interests me less and less these days. “Why’s that?” inquisitive/cheeky readers might ask, and to be honest, I don’t know and I’m not terribly interested in knowing.
In his essay “Topic of Cancer,” which would become part of his book Mortality, Christopher Hitchens observes that just before finding out he had terminal cancer, he earned “million-miler” status with United Airlines and consequently “a lifetime of free upgrades.” While many people would deem that ironic, he doesn’t “see any ironies here”:
Would it be less poignant to get cancer on the day that . . . I was bounced from a coach-class flight and left on the tarmac? To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?
Irony, in the way he’s using it, would imply a grand scheme, an existential system wherein he somehow merited esophageal cancer. But he’s not going to go there. He understands that life isn’t that cruel. He didn’t earn cancer like he earned his million-miler upgrades. Lots of people get cancer–why not him?
The query of “why” is often posed in writing workshops: Why does character X do Y? Why is the narrator telling this story? The workshop conversation can begin to resemble a police procedural in which the question of motive appears again and again, which on the surface may seem to be in service to the craft, but–I suspect–has just as much to do with writers’ hopes that a story or essay with clear logic will render life more comprehensible.
(At the risk of alienating all writers, I hazard the claim that prose writers are more concerned with “why” than are poets. At the risk of alienating primarily prose writers, I hazard that this is because poets are smarter. And, yes, this latter declaration risks alienating integrity-obsessed readers who recall my earlier assertion about being little interested in “why.”)
Among the one-liners rattling about my brain is this: “What I have been after all along is not an explanation but a picture.” From Annie Dillard’s classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, this sentence shook me when I first read it and has multiple times since. It embodies her wisdom: The writer’s task is to see–not to rationalize or elucidate, but to see. In another chapter of Pilgrim, she says, “What I call innocence is the spirit’s unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration.” While seeing is often equated to maturity and cynicism, to Dillard it is innocence. It is beauty. It is devotion, attention, prayer.
I have a habit of turning to Dillard–as is evidenced by a previous post–because she can see like few writers I’ve read. And seeing is itself so demanding I don’t think I can do much more, as a reader or writer. I can’t answer the “whys” or even muster the energy to ask them. As fascinating as psychology and philosophy are, they can get in the way of living–and in the way of a good writing session.
My watery writing directive is this: Don’t allow the “why” to stall you. Don’t let it delay the shaping of a scene, the description of a character, the momentum of exposition. Focus on the scene, the character, the idea, without stumbling over sense. If some well-meaning reader of your draft asks “Why Z?” reply “Why not Z?” If the reader then muses, “But everything happens for a reason,” pick up your laptop and move to another room. Or, if using a desktop, pick up the reader and move them to another room.
To look past the thing to the question of motive or impetus is to reject the writer’s most essential function and to take upon oneself a burden that, especially in early drafting stages, the literary writer has no need to bear. Focus first. Focus with such ferocity you become innocent. The universe is neither kind nor cruel. It doesn’t coddle or condemn. To face what we are and where we are is itself the struggle.