“Truth is always out of reach—but I think it can be, in part, apprehended.”
The poet Scott Cairns said that (or something very close to that) in his talk “Writing as a Way of Knowing” at the Festival of Faith & Writing earlier this month. I’m guessing that for most Americans in today’s science- and information-rich world, the thought of truth being always out of reach is maddening. And I can definitely relate to that—to that desperation for clarity in those moments of swirling, disorienting confusion that jostle and overturn the meager rows of order we’ve assembled in our minds. If there is so much information and so many ways of creating knowledge, why does truth have to be so elusive?
But at the same time, the thought of being equipped to apprehend bits and pieces of truth is electrifying. It feeds and motivates us, especially as writers and artists. It’s also what “keeps us in a job,” so to speak: This task of assembling small scraps of almost-truths into forms others can use on their own quests is a never-ending one. Not only does the work itself keep dividing and multiplying, but the number and range of workers needed to chip away at the task is far from finite. There’s plenty of work for us all, and plenty of room for every method and perspective on apprehending truth.
Thanks to a bout with the flu, I’m just now beginning to sort through my notes and thoughts from the Festival of Faith & Writing, which was nearly two weeks ago. I was planning to write a catch-all Best Of post about the conference, but this particular talk by Scott Cairns has been shifting and turning in me since I heard him speak. I think there are two things going on here, in terms of its grasp on me—one is personal, but it quickly winds its way into the second, which is communal and cultural.
On a personal level, I think my desire for neat and tidy truths is one of the biggest roadblocks in my writing life. I have to keep practicing, again and again, the act of writing—and sharing—the struggle itself. Regardless of how often I do it, it continues to feel awkward and foreign, not natural. My natural inclination is to struggle alone, using my intellect and reasoning skills, and then to present something thought-out and complete to all of you, like a gift. And that speaks to how we were created. I wouldn’t, for example, give my husband the ingredients of a cake for his birthday. It is our natural desire to create something beautiful and complete for others.
But I know, both intellectually and in my gut, that “perfect gift” is not the kind of gift people really want when it comes to the type of writing I do. In fact, as I wrote a while back in my post “Why we like imperfect posts,” what people want, it seems, is to be invited into the struggle and the journey:
It seems to happen without fail: Every time I write a blog post that comes together like magic, and I hit “publish” with a “you nailed this one” smile on my face, the response is rather “meh.” And often when I really struggle with a post, feeling insecure and frustrated with it, stopping every few minutes to ask myself “What are you trying to say?” the response far exceeds my expectations.
See? I’m a slow learner. I wrote that post three years ago, and I’m still trying to accept that writing is a way of knowing, not a response to knowing. But the good news is that over the course of these three years I’ve discovered, probably absorbed, and perhaps pieced together new fragments of truth. And I can definitely say this: Ultimately, I don’t want people to say “I love Kristin’s blog because she has figured everything out, which saves me a lot of time and effort.” I want them to say, “I love Kristin’s blog because she sparks in me new ways of seeing and thinking about things—she invites me into the the process, the conversation.
I’ll let Cairns have the almost-last words here, because he puts it so astoundingly well (again, I am quoting from notes scribbled as he spoke, so they are near-direct, but probably not quite):
The best writing is opaque. It requires the reader to participate in the meaning making. Too often we read poetry (and scripture, too) in an attempt to reach a certain meaning on the other side, rather than struggling with the text, and accepting the possibility of more than one meaning. …
The problem with writing a poem about what you think you already know is that you’re creating…a document of meaning made rather than a scene for meaning-making.
As writers and artists, let’s stop trying to “figure things out.” Instead, let’s create scenes that invite others in, to wonder and explore. Let’s make some meaning together, shall we?
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Photo above by bgottsab