Negative Capability

I tell my workshop writers not to outline. Outlines are intended to keep you focused, moving from one topic to another. But the creative writer needs to take the choke collar off his imagination, so it can wander. If writers know where they are going with any given piece of writing, the journey will not be interesting for them or for the reader. Let the writing take you somewhere unexpected. Follow your sentences down the rabbit hole. It may turn out a dead end or lead to a new world. In this way all writers are explorers. Nudge your imagination off the path.

But we writers are also word junkies who need to feed our daily writing habit. We want to bang out X number of pages, so we can feel right with the world. We want to march forward, never cut paragraphs or spend copious amounts of time sanding sentences, or pondering punctuation.

I have a painter friend who often asks me how far along my manuscript is. “How many words have you written; how many words do you have to go?” Groan. I want to shake him. Did Lewis and Clarke know what was over the next hill? Did Balboa have any idea the morning he woke that by nightfall he would see the shimmering Pacific?

I don’t know where I’m going with my novel nor do I know how long it will take until I arrive. I’m traveling somewhere, some days at great speed, but most days not. And what I need for my journey cannot be found at REI. I need imagination, time and energy, patience with myself, the curiosity I had as a child, and a large bucket of negative capability.

Negative capability was a phrase first used by Romantic poet John Keats to characterize the capacity of writers to pursue a vision of artistic beauty even when it leads them into intellectual confusion and uncertainty, as opposed to a preference for philosophical certainty over artistic beauty.

We writers must live in harmony with unknowing, with acceptance of mysteries. Thank God, I don’t have to figure it out. In fact, I shouldn’t figure it out. Keats’ exact words: I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

To all my writer friends: happy wandering.

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