On Reasons to Write

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In the early months of 2020, Australia- where I live- experienced its worst ever bush fires. Climate scientists agree that climate change has made the fires more frequent and more intense than they might otherwise have been. Yes, the sunburnt country has always experienced bushfires, but nothing with the ferocity we witnessed this year. I am lucky enough to have escaped direct experience of the fires, but I watched horrified and yet mesmerised- like drivers passing by a motor vehicle accident-at scenes straight of a Science Fiction movie. The red sky, the red clouds, the eerie feeling of apocalypse now!

One potential apocalypse was followed by another: COVID 19. Again, I have been lucky. I have not (as yet) contracted the virus nor, to my knowledge, have any of my friends and family. I reminded though by the daily news (and I feel somehow morally obligated to watch the news) that across the planet millions have been infected, disable and died.

Throughout the bushfires and COVID 19 I have continued to spend at least some of my time writing fiction. But why write fiction when climate change and COVID 19 constitute an existential threat that jeopardises our very continuation?

The first reason I write is because I enjoy it. When I sit down and write I am able, on a good day, to enter the experience of flow. That is to say, I am absorbed in the task, which is challenging but doable, to the extent that time is suspended. While I have always been a political animal in the sense that I think human life is shot through with power relations and that politics matters, we need more than politics to sustain us. I find writing to be a psychologically satisfying practice.

As a young man I was influenced by Sartre and his notion of ‘engaged literature’. Sartre’s staring point is freedom. Thus, a writer exercises h/er freedom and defines h/erself by engaging willingly and consciously in the intentional action of writing. Any individual’s freedom is dependent on the freedom of others and so my freedom is dependent on yours. Engagement is then understood as an individual ethical challenge involving a responsibility of turning freely made choices to socially useful ends.

To me, engaged writing does not mean didactic or overtly political writing. It means writing about the human condition in ways that explore moral dilemmas, our responses and the possibilities that confront us. The best writing explores what it is to be human as we struggle to understand who we are. According to the philosopher Richard Rorty, literature (he cites Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as an example) is more able to reset our moral and political compass than is philosophy.

Literature is a social phenomenon; it is generated in specific social contexts and meaning is produced in the interaction between text and reader. Reading and writing involves and evokes shared social practices, values and social connection. Writing fiction can both explore the human condition and reaffirm the social. In a cultural world that emphasises the individual achievement as the most important good, constituting and reaffirming the social is of critical significance.

There is a Zen Koan that asks the question ‘who am I?’. We engage in a process of asking ‘who am I?’ and strip away layer after layer of partial answers. Am I my body? Yes, but not only my body. Am I my thoughts? Yes, but not only my thoughts. Am I my social roles? Yes, but not only social roles. And so on. There is never a foundational answer. I feel similarly about writing fiction (or indeed any form of writing). We explore what it is to be human without ever coming to a definitive answer and in doing so affirm our humanity as vulnerable creatures bobbing on the ocean of life.

The Value of Not-Knowing

As a young man I enjoyed reading and studying. I was curious and wanted to ‘know things’: I wanted to know about people; I wanted to know about how the world worked; I wanted to know about how we could make the world a better place; and I want to know about myself. As an academic I continued to read, research and write with the ambition to know. Paradoxically, I came to ‘know’ that ‘truth’ (which at one point I hoped to know) is a slippery concept; a ‘mobile army of metaphors,’ as Nietzsche argued; ‘a social commendation’ in Richard Rorty’s estimation. That is, truth is a property of language and we apply the concept of truth to ways of seeing that we approve of. There is no God-like position from which to survey an objective truth; truth is always somebody’s point of view. This, for the philosophically inclined, is not relativism (since one cannot look across all knowledges in order to declare them equal), but rather acceptance of the positionality of knowledge.

With fiction writing I think we benefit from taking another step: embracing the value of not knowing. Whatever the situation that we face, when we accept that we ‘don’t know’ (what will happen, why people act in particular ways, what we should do etc.) we are open to what actually does happen in a non-judgmental way and are thus able to be with it in an open flexible fashion. To not know, to put aside our certainty about how things are, or how we think that they should be, is to be open to what is rather than impose upon it what we believe or hope or want it to be. This means stopping and calming ourselves, doing nothing, so that we can observe ‘what is’ without imposing our beliefs about ‘the way it is’ on the world. The great value of not knowing is being still with what is.

I love ideas and as an academic I engaged deeply and joyfully with them. I like ideas in fiction too. However, while philosophy starts with ideas, fiction starts with people. Observing the world of people and trying to grasp it emotional ‘truths’ is the core of fiction. Beginning our observations of people in their worlds and attempting to represent it (in numerous ways) with a ‘beginners mind’- a mind without preconceived ideas about what we are observing-strikes me as the most valuable way to go about writing fiction.


I have adapted the idea of ‘not knowing’ from the late Zen teacher Bernie Glassman who defines it thus:

“Not knowing is simply not being attached to any particular piece of knowledge. In the same way, it is also not rejecting any piece of knowledge. You hear something and say “Ah! That’s ridiculous! Forget it!” If you hear something, try responding “Well, maybe that is possible also.” “Oh! That’s another way of looking at it.” Add that to your set of knowledge; don’t exclude anything. Keep adding, and don’t stick to one piece of information as if that’s the correct way. The state of not knowing is not being attached to any of the packages that you have.”  Bernie Glassman zenpeacemakers.org

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