The truth is a tricky thing to pin down. It’s a bit like water. It’s sticky, it’s slippery, and it’s fluid, refusing to conform to, or remain in, any one shape. You can immerse yourself in it, but you can also drown in it. And if you stand at the edge of the ocean, it can be utterly overwhelming. You can’t drink it all in, or tame it. You can’t even see it all. The best you can do is make sure you’re in control of the patch of water that’s immediately around you or your vessel. Sure, you can freeze it, into a shape of your choosing, but then it’s not the truth, only an image, a photograph of it. It’s its shape-shifting liquidity that makes the truth true.
We’re all seeking the truth. But if the truth is like water, we can only seek out a small piece of it in which we can float and manage it. The arts are the means by which we seek the truth. This is the principal point of the arts, and why we value it so highly in various different ways. We value it capitally: the creative industries are worth billions and billions of dollars, and even drive technological change through moviemaking and theatrical innovations. But the reason it holds such monetary value is due to its other, arguably greater value, that transformative, transcendental power that stories contain.
I won’t go into the clichés of the transformative power of stories here. Suffice to say that in my view, the cliché holds great truth. For me, I try and attain truth through what I write. There’s something strange and dangerous in telling a story. As Bilbo says in The Lord Of The Rings, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
But we want to be swept up. As a writer, I certainly do. And it puzzles and delights me when I can surprise myself by reaching a conclusion or an event through a story that I didn’t not foresee when I started out. Jung said (and I’m severely paraphrasing here) that thoughts can be like a table in a room. You walk into the room, and the table was always already there. The great thought that you have, or the apparently revelatory instantiation of a thought in a story, was always already there. All you did was happen upon it, like Columbus discovering the Americas – he didn’t really discover it, he just happened upon it. The concept of that – that all the ideas are already within us – staggers me, and yet it does make sense; it’s a reaching, fluid sort of sense, which makes me want to understand even more. So I write.
When I started TGM I imagined that a certain character would have a redemptive arc. That, when faced with an empirical certainty (or what seems like one) that somebody would reject the suppositions that they’ve held close to their heart and accept that they were wrong about the world. But I found that, sadly, that’s not how people react at all to being poked in the axioms by the world. And so the redemptive arc, at the point when it was ready to become manifest in the text, never came. It disappeared into the frosty Northumberland air of the mid fourteenth century. When people are shown empirical proof about the folly of their beliefs, they don’t dispense with them. They double down.
I actually think we’re seeing something similar to that in the culture wars that we’re suffering presently; there’s something risible about the lack of willingness to have a conversation – a real, dancing conversation, rather than a soundbite-riddled argument – in a mutually agreed attempt to pursue greater wisdom, utility, and truth. But I’m not dipping my tow into that particular vat of toxic waste. I can only try to articulate what I’m thinking, and explore as I type. It’s a little like a stream of consciousness, I suppose. We can puzzle things out just by writing about them. I tend to do this via fiction, but in returning to my blog I’ve found that one can do this through this journal means as well.
I recently found out that Israel literally translates as “we who wrestle with God.” And in Islam the concept of jihad – or struggle with God (a term so obviously bastardised and co-opted by wicked people in the earlier parts of this century) – is also well known. So Jacob – who wrestles with the Angel – founds a country whose people wrestle with God. That gave me such a brilliant moment of clarity! To write is to wrestle in the same way, to fight with yourself in order to attain some higher level of reasoning or understanding. That wonderful quote I’m so fond of from 2666 also makes the connection between writing and wrestling – “combat” is how Balaño describes it, and he’s not wrong. TGM felt like a wrestling match with myself at points, as did The Hole In The Sky, and Man O’War. In contrast, those short stories posted up here on my blog are exercises, experiments, vignettes. Sparring sessions.
I’d love to know whether other writers – or people generally – have this method of writing as a means of having a conversation with oneself, to try and figure things out and wrestle towards a truth?