The Power of Not Knowing

“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections, and the truth of imagination.”

-John Keats

In my life, my writing, and my appreciation of literature, I strive for awareness and understanding. I have done so in my life through the disciplines of theology and philosophy, in my writing through the tutelage of other writers, and in my appreciation of literature through the study of literary criticism. I have engaged each discipline, formally and informally, throughout my life. And so, I am myself one common denominator among these fields.

That said, I also recognize a dynamic interrelationship: my life influences my writing, and my writing influences my appreciation of the written word; conversely, my appreciation of the written word influences my writing, and my writing influences my life. With this interconnection in mind, I am also beginning to discover, and attempt to articulate, an important principle held in common among the three.

It stems from a phrase coined by an eighteenth-century English poet named John Keats, who said:

…at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

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William Stafford, Writing the Australian Crawl

William Stafford’s honesty about the writing process is irresistible. Over and over again in Writing The Australian Crawl he admits to some remarkable points: that there is no such thing as skill, that anyone can write, that getting over writer’s block is simply a matter of lowering one’s standards, that editors are friends put on Earth to help us keep back work that should not be in print, that criticism shuts down the creative process fast, and that defending or justifying the significance of one’s work is not the writer’s job.

Above all, he seems to confirm — from many different angles — what I have been discovering in my own journey from criticism to craft: that the tools of criticism are simply not well suited to the task of writing well. What you need, from Stafford’s point of view, is willingness to keep writing. He revealed that the vast majority of what he wrote he never sent out, and of the writing he did think publication-worthy, only one-tenth was ever published. While one could argue that this was only his particular approach and style, having such an interesting writer admit to his own process like this debunks a whole lot of nonsense about any determinate meaning-making approach to art. Everywhere in this book Stafford seems to be saying, instead, “Just keep writing.”
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