I don’t know whether any physicist has actually worked out the formula for the phenomenon of three buses always coming along at once, but someone really should. (Dark Puss, fancy a shot at it?) For there was a sudden intriguing flurry of activity on the course towards the end of last week when I received not one but two useful critiques on the first essay assignment. One came from the fourth member of my peer review group. I’d given up on ever hearing a peep out of him, but at the last minute he produced an extremely detailed and insightful review. Then finally our instructor, also at the last gasp of his promise ‘within a fortnight’, delivered us his thoughts. I’d been a bit skeptical about our great leader, as some other members of the course tend to fawn on him when he puts in a rare appearance on the forums, and that brings out the worst in me. I will try to behave better, though, as he did provide a helpful critique.
This all coincided with a discussion I’d opened about whether/how it was possible to write personally without sitting down at the typewriter and opening a vein, as the saying goes. The overwhelming response from course members was that no, this is not possible. It’s the job of the writer to follow the pain and write through it, on the basis that readers read in order to experience different (and one supposes extreme) states of being. What the reader wants above all else is the intensity of the experience.
I have to say that I’m not fully convinced by this. I think it’s one of those situations where the abstract answer is very different to the real one. A writer says: ‘I don’t want to spend all my time excavating the worst parts of this experience’ and the reader thinks, ‘Ah, but will the account be properly truthful? Isn’t writing about confronting things we tend to avoid?’ Whereas those selfsame readers will weary very quickly indeed of a stream of self-pity, misery and complaint, which is pretty much what you will find clustered around difficult experiences. To write about bad times successfully, I think you need a lot of leavening ingredients – primarily humour, insight, wisdom, and the power to console. I also think that writing can be effective when it makes implications rather than statements, or when we see the work of extreme events in indirect or tangential ways. In other words, I don’t think you have to stand in the epicentre of an earthquake to understand the force of an earthquake.
Both the question and the answer here are about the difficulty we humans have in getting our powers of thinking and feeling to work in harmony. I wonder how much our lives become mired in conflict because thought gives us one answer to a problem and feeling gives us a totally different one. I’ve been reading and continuing to marvel at the wonderful Being Wrong by Kathryn Schultz, which demonstrates in all kinds of ways how we think other people are wrong with the greatest of ease, but feel ourselves to be wrong at the cost of desperate and destructive emotions.
The chapter I’ve just read about denial and acceptance was particularly powerful. Schultz tells the story of Penny Beerntsen who was violently raped on a family day out to the shores of Lake Michigan. Being exceptionally brave in the heat of the moment, Penny knew the one thing she must do was get a good look at her assailant’s face, in case she survived the attack. Therefore, when the police came to her later in hospital with a strong suspect, and she picked his photo out of a selection, the case seemed easily closed. However, the man she identified continued to protest his sentence, and his case was eventually taken up by the Innocence Project, some 18 years later. By this time, DNA testing was available, and the results from the laboratory proved that the man jailed for the rape was indeed innocent, and that another man, currently serving a lengthy sentence for aggravated assault, had been the perpetrator.
Continuing to be an exceptionally brave woman, Penny Beerntsen did her best to face up to this miscarriage of justice. But what a dreadful responsibility now seemed to lie on the shoulders of a woman who had been an innocent victim of a terrible crime. Now she felt guilty not only for the 18 years of wrongful imprisonment, but for the score of crimes her real attacker had committed before he was caught. Schultz goes into this case in some depth (all of it fascinating), and argues that Penny can hardly be held to blame for what happened, not least because it was the police’s job to identify the perpetrator correctly (and they turned a blind eye to all sorts of evidence, so sure were they that they had their man) and the legal system’s job to ensure a fair, accurate and full trial. Yet every stage of the process – by no means a negligible one – is littered with people who for various reasons want quick results, are fuelled by righteous anger, and believe themselves to be on the side of the angels. There is so much at stake here that accepting the possibility that mistakes are easily made becomes even harder than it is normally.
Yet mistakes are easily made. All the studies undertaken into eyewitness accounts have shown beyond doubt that this is the most error-strewn form of evidence. The very best eyewitnesses get more than 25% of the facts wrong in their accounts, the worst more than 80%. Seeing may be believing, but it is in no way objective recording; our perceptions are often wildly inaccurate. Yet in a court of law, the testimony of the eyewitness remains surpassed only by DNA in its ability to secure a conviction. Because we feel our own perceptions to be accurate, we believe those of others to be so too. However, Kathryn Schultz brilliantly points out that when we cross the border from non-fiction into fiction, the eyewitness account transforms into a first person narrative. And here the reputation of the narrator takes a nose dive. In a novel, the first person account is considered to be subjective, partial, and unreliable.
This is the thought that I take with me into my writing course. Being a reader before I am a writer, I am uncomfortably aware of how inaccurate my memory is, how much events are changed by the mood of the moment, how easy it is to create different versions of the same event. The instructor made a very intriguing comment at the end of a discussion a couple of days ago, suggesting to us that we might give up the need to be right, or to solve things, in favour of tracking the path of uncertainty and error. I’m much taken with this idea, which I think gets us closer to any kind of ‘truth’ of experience. What I want to ask the course participants now is how we square that pursuit of uncertainty with narrative’s demand for an ending. Only we’re about to hand in another essay and the forum is currently a dead zone. Well, perhaps next week; I think they’re getting sick of me asking difficult questions as it is!