Contradiction in Fiction

Check out the essay below.  It’s from a book titled Alone With All That Could Happen:  Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About the Craft of Fiction Writing by David Jauss.

Lots to think about.


For years now, I have given the students in my introductory writing classes a two-part exercise that I tell them, only half-facetiously, will teach them virtually all they need to know about the creative process. Here’s the exercise: first I ask them to write their names on a piece of paper, then I ask them to make up an alias. That’s it. The entire exercise takes only 30-40 seconds, but it usually provokes a long discussion about what transpired during those seconds. What this little exercise reveals is that the creative process requires a mode of thought that is diametrically opposed to our usual way of thinking. When I ask my students to write their actual names, there is only one correct response and an infinite number of incorrect ones, but when I ask them to make up aliases, there are an infinite number of correct responses and only one incorrect one. The first mode of thought is called “convergent,” since it requires us to converge on the sole correct answer, and the second is called “divergent,” since it requires us to diverge from the one incorrect answer–the fact–and consider a range of possible correct answers. All of us use both modes of thought, of course, but the convergent mode dominates our thinking to the point of being reflexive. My students don’t hesitate when I ask them to write their actual names, but they do when I ask them to make up fictitious ones. The creative process, I tell them, resides in that hesitation, that moment of uncertainty. For without uncertainty, the imagination simply does not come into play. As Donald Barthelme has said, “Not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.” And, according to Gaston Bachelard, there would also be no discovery of new or larger truths. “Not-knowing is not a form of ignorance,” he says, “but a difficult transcendence of knowledge.” As Bachelard’s words suggest, not-knowing is far from being a passive state; resisting the mind’s tendency to converge on a comfortable certainty requires an arduous, active effort. Those who can resist this tendency possess what Keats called “Negative Capability,” the ability to remain “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” And that ability, I tell my students, is the most valuable talent a writer can possess.

I believe what I tell my students–I am nothing if not certain about the need for uncertainty–but I also believe that merely encouraging them to embrace uncertainty doesn’t help them learn how to write. Uncertainty is, well, too uncertain a subject for us to grasp. And in any case, once we have accepted the idea that creativity begins where certainty leaves off, what do we do next? Facing the blank page, not knowing what will happen in the story or poem, or what its ultimate meaning will be, is exhilarating for those students who intuitively know how to walk on the water of the imagination, but there are many otherwise very talented students who find themselves stuck at the edge of uncertainty, unable to proceed. Generally, these writers do one of two things–they revert to convergent thinking and create a DOA paint-by-numbers story or poem, or they edit their every thought back into the silence from which it came and write nothing at all. More and more I think that what Bertrand Russell said about teaching philosophy is also true about teaching creative writing: our principal goal should be “to teach how to live without certainty and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation.” Hesitation is an essential part of the creative process–without it, divergent thinking is impossible–but we need to find a way to move through and beyond it or we risk being paralyzed by the very uncertainty that makes creativity possible. In my opinion, the key to avoiding this sort of creative paralysis lies in the cultivation of contradiction.

Beginning writers, however, almost universally equate contradiction with error and failure and so work strenuously to avoid it. And, obviously, many contradictions are errors. As the philosopher Graham Priest has said, “it is irrational to believe that I am both a fried egg and not a fried egg.” But some contradictions, he maintains, are not only “rationally possible” but also “rationally obligatory.” In this view, Priest is the descendent of such philosophers as Heraclitus, Plotinus, Nicholas of Cusa, Hume, Engels, and Hegel. Of these, Hegel goes the farthest in endorsing the rational obligation to accept contradictions. “According to Kant,” he said, “thought has a natural tendency to issue in contradictions or antinomies, whenever it seeks to apprehend the infinite. But Kant . . . never penetrated to the discovery of what the antinomies really and positively mean. The true and positive meaning of the antinomies is this: that every actual thing involves a coexistence of opposed elements.” For Hegel, then, contradiction leads us to truth, not away from it.

Simone Weil agrees. “Contradiction,” she tells us, “is the lever of transcendence.” Like a lever, it allows us to lift what we otherwise could not, and the act of lifting allows us to transcend what we already know. In other words, contradiction allows us to transcend the convergent mode of thought, what Weil calls the mere “discursive intelligence,” and the false certainty it inspires. “We are only certain,” she says, “about what we do not understand.” The way to understanding, then, is through uncertainty, and the way to leave false certainty behind and enter the realm of uncertainty is through the use of contradiction. “As soon as we have thought something,” she advises, “try to see in what way the contrary is true.” Importantly, the purpose of investigating ideas dialectically is not to eradicate one or the other idea, for contradiction, she argues, is an essential element of both truth and beauty: “in all beauty we find contradiction,” she says, and “all truth contains a contradiction.” Behind the dialectic method Weil proposes is the belief that something can be true on one level, its opposite can be true on another, and when they are synthesized, both of them can be simultaneously true on a higher level. Jean Cocteau seconds this belief: “All creation,” he has said, “is the spirit of contradiction in its highest form.” And in its highest form, contradiction transcends the “either-or” mentality of simple negation–“This is true, that isn’t”–and achieves the complex affirmation of what Cleanth Brooks called the “both-and” mode of thought. According to Amy Hempel, this is the mode of thought that initiates a work of fiction. “A story happens,” she says, “when two equally appealing forces, or characters, or ideas try to occupy the same place at the same time, and they’re both right.”

Given the role the “both-and” mode of thought plays in the creative process, it’s not surprising to find it also in the act of dreaming, which is of course the kissin’ cousin of the creative process. As Freud has said, “Dreams show a special tendency to reduce two opposites to a unity or to represent them as one thing” and hence “anything in a dream may mean its opposite.” Freud also notes that this same tendency characterizes primal languages such as ancient Egyptian, in which, according to the philologist Karl Abel, there are many words “which at one and the same time denoted a thing and the opposite of this thing” (the same word denoted “strong” and “weak,” for example) as well as compound-words in which two “contrary meanings are united into a whole” (Abel’s examples include “oldyoung,” “farnear,” and “outsideinside”). Remnants of this primal, contradictory mode of thought are evident in our own language: witness the words “cleave,” which means both to part and to cling together, and “sanction,” which conveys both approval and condemnation. It is this mode of thought, this form of meaningful contradiction, which Weil advises we adopt in our search for truth and beauty.

Weil’s advice is especially helpful to writers because the creative process not only involves contradiction but is itself inherently contradictory. After all, the very first step in the creative process is destruction. To invent an alias, to diverge from the factual and scan through the possible, we first have to destroy our actual names, reject that convergent thought. And to create something new, we have to destroy not only many facts but also the first thoughts and expressions that occur to us. If, for example, we write the words “flat as a,” our first thought will most likely be to add the word “pancake,” but if we choose that word, we have succumbed to cliche and failed to create anything new. The same principle applies to all other aspects of literature: if we do not destroy our first, convergent thoughts, we will end up with red-haired characters with fiery tempers; plots in which boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy gets girl again; rhymes like love /​ dove and June /​ moon; and potted themes like “love conquers all” and “beating your wife is not nice.” If we want to write originally, we must do what Robert Venturi, an advocate of contradition in architecture, recommends: “use convention unconventionally.” And that requires destruction as well as creation, and destruction requires rejection, negation, and contradiction.

But once we have destroyed the cliche, the stereotype, the formulaic plot, the predictable rhyme, the potted theme, and so forth, how do we go about creating something new? The answer, as I have suggested, is to court contradiction. We need to take Keats’ notion of Negative Capability one small but important step further: our goal as writers should be not only to persist in uncertainty but to seek it out, even intentionally create it, through contradiction. For, paradoxically, the best way to avoid being paralyzed by uncertainty is to intensify it, and the most intense form of uncertainty possible is contradiction.

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2 Responses to Contradiction in Fiction

  1. Shirley Duke says:

    This is good and thought–provoking. Thanks for sharing it. I’ve seen this in your writing.


  2. skvanzandt says:

    Hi Shirley!! Glad to hear from you. How’s your writing going?


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