Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Writer and the Mystery of Human Nature

Nothing makes me feel like a fraud faster than parenting. As a resident grown-up, I'm supposed to be able to help decipher human behavior, explain the quirks and eccentricities of friends, and navigate social mores. The problem is, I'm not very good at it. Whenever one of my children turns to me, looking for explanation at some strange response or behavior, I tend to find myself every bit as perplexed as they are. Maybe this is why Flannery O'Conner called her books of essays Mystery and Manners--because the two are actually the same. Our manners are a mystery.

I've been thinking about this a lot this weekend, as I found myself in the familiar position of being at a loss. Shouldn't I, a writer, be better equipped than most to understand human behavior and explain it to my children? Isn't that what Keats meant by "negative capability," that quality that Shakespeare and other great writers had to inhabit any person and understand their worldview and motivation?

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that on the list of required job qualifications for a writer, "understanding human nature" was pretty high on the list... and here, I had just revealed myself once again to be utterly lacking.

As I began to cast about in this pit of despair, though, I realized something else: it is in large part my inability to understand behavior that brings me to the desk. Writing gives me a chance to try to inhabit those ways of understanding, even if I don't fully get them. It's a type of surrender, a yielding of biases and views in hopes of gaining insight.

The realization made me want to write. Maybe I can't help my children understand all the capriciousness or narrowness or whatever else that inhabit us from moment to moment, and maybe I can't understand it myself, but there's something expansive in the attempt. I suspect that this repeated experiment--trying to understand what motivates not all Mankind but rather one specific man or woman in one specific place and instance--is at the heart of the writing I love most and the kind of writing I hope to achieve.

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