I once interviewed my mother, Jane Barnes, who is also a writer, about her writing life. “Inchoate reaching in heartfelt darkness” was how she described the feeling of writing, but she was also describing the vocation of writing. Writing as a way of moving through the world, of being in relation to it. I would recall my mother’s words later when I read an interview with the writer William Gay. I may be butchering what he said, but the gist was that writing requires you to reside in bafflement. Over the years, I’ve heard echoes of my mother’s phrase and Gay’s in various books, in various moods, in the faces of various people, in various landscapes. This has been one of the most significant pieces of writing advice I’ve gleaned, especially useful in sustaining the long-haul adventure of being a writer. What it reminds me, each time I relearn it, is that searching is central to the endeavor—and searching includes making a mess, stumbling around, falling down, occasional joy, frustration, sorrow, more occasional joy. I forget it; I relearn it; I forget it; I relearn it. Most recently, I relearned it around Draft Six of my last novel, then again around Draft Nine, and then again once the novel was finished and I tried to start something new. The land of Bafflement is strange and spooky, and, as it turns out, it’s where writers live much of the time. It is full of mystery, and howling wolves. Sometimes it’s terrifying, all that inchoate reaching, all that heartfelt darkness. There’s uncertainty and unknowing. For all the same reasons it unnerves you, it’s a bounteous land. There aren’t many answers, but there are plenty of compelling questions, many of which will lead you on wild goose chases (otherwise known as stories and novels), and sometimes you will catch a glimpse of a wild goose. A glimpse of a wild goose is an amazing, amazing thing.
There’s a fictional art exhibit in Amy Hempel’s wonderfully elusive story “What Were the White Things?” The story never stops asking the question of its title, and it has served me well as I dwell in Bafflement. The fictional art exhibit is called “Finding the Mystery in Clarity.” Flip it and it still applies. “Finding the Clarity in Mystery.” Two sides of the same coin; it’s the currency in Bafflement.
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