The Elusive Search for Certainty

uncertaintyI confess. I’m an extremely anxious person. I drive myself (and those closest to me) nuts. That’s one reason I tend toward reclusiveness. I don’t know why I’m extremely anxious, but that doesn’t matter here. The point is, my anxiety has driven me to do two things: begin a practice of mindful meditation and teach myself the difficult task of writing fiction.

Certainly anxiety  is rooted in fear, fear of the unknown, of the future. But nothing’s for certain. First you think you’re standing on solid ground, and next you feel it give way beneath you.

Oh, sure. I have an MFA. But here’s what the late David Foster Wallace, who wrote prolifically and taught writing (and suffered greatly from deep, chronic depression), had to say that will evaporate any idea that an MFA is some kind of panacea for laziness or writer’s block or a lack of talent or …

“There’s this weird scam in creative writing workshops that somehow the teacher’s gonna teach you how–they’re gonna be able to teach you to do exactly what it is they do. Which is why these programs try to pack themselves with the best-known and most-respected writers. As if  how good a writer you are and how good a teacher you are have anything to do with each other.”

This quote is from an uncorrected proof of a “road trip with David Foster Wallace” by David Lipsky. I love that Wallace managed to keep a wonderful sense of humor despite his depression. I wish I’d come upon that quote before I applied to grad school. I had too many of the wrong ideas about a master’s in creative fiction writing. Maybe I wouldn’t feel so much of this anxiety now.  The main thing I learned in grad school is that you already proved you could write, or you’d never have gotten accepted. So what’s the problem?

The point is, artists and writers have to learn how to live with uncertainty, and hence with some degree of anxiety. Healthy anxiety can keep us on our toes; unhealthy anxiety kills the soul. If you’ve ever suffered through a writing workshop where criticism is polite but merciless, you know what I mean. You either let it roll off your thickening hide or you shrivel and cower in the corner. Unfortunately, you can guess what camp I joined. “Don’t be so hard on yourself…it’s not about the writer, it’s about the writing…bla bla bla…”

I am learning that there’s a peculiar connection between the reach for certainty and perfection. Both are elusive, both are impossible. From a writer’s point of view, Keats’ Negative Capability comes to mind here too, of course,

“when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason –”

So, I’ve begun to practice mindfulness. It’s really difficult to remember to be mindful, to learn how to ride the waves of life, like an open-ended journey of one of my fictional characters. But I don’t see a lot of other options (writers are known for their mental instabilities and addictions, right?). At any rate, I’m sure I’m not the first person to realize the many parallels between mindfulness and the writing life. Natalie Goldberg wrote about them in her Writing Down the Bones – full of the interplay between writing, meditation, and running. You could well be familiar with them, too. Here are a few I’m slowly discovering:

  • Life is suffering
  • Be a non-judgmental observer
  • Be in the moment
  • Notice things
  • Embrace your demons
  • Learn to live with uncertainty
  • Compassion



3 thoughts on “The Elusive Search for Certainty

  1. I’m a big fan of minfullness being an anxiety sufferer myself. I’ve had a lot of success with it. My fav saying at the moment is “judgement weighs you down, acceptance sets you free” I think of it mostly when I’m running as my mind wanders and then sometimes that really judgy side of me comes out. I’m trying to get rid of her. It’s a work in progress but I feel we are getting somewhere :)

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