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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Negative Capability

I love confident people. Type As, control freaks, just-do-it types, who know how to ignore the urge to second-guess. Love them. They’re like aliens to me, beautiful, frightening aliens. I want to run away from them, but also I am fascinated. I have this feeling that maybe they’ll rub off on me, or that maybe by imitating them I can, you know, fake it.

Because while I love them, I am also completely unlike them. The one thing they have that I don’t, I’ve decided, is the ability to ignore shades of gray. You know, lack of intense introspection, avoidance of naval-gazing, perhaps even an unhealthy fear of being undecided. I can see it, I just can’t get there. The thing I have that they don't? A talent for conflict.

I mean, I debate tuna versus pb&j for lunch, the short cut or the scenic route, or any old decision until I exhaust myself. And that’s just the infinitesimal stuff I’m sweating.  When you get to the bigger questions, I’m forever confused. Is it okay to be a writer? Yes? No? Do I have to get a “real” job, too? Yes? No? Am I moving forward? Yes? No? I'm a muller, a ponderer, a can't-decider. Basically, I'm conflicted. About ambition, money, creativity, professions, motherhood, marriage, suburban living, and crabgrass. (Which we have less of this year, in case my early readers were wondering, because we hired people to put-- organicorganicorganicnotpoisonous-- stuff on the lawn.)

Sure, yeah, I’m talking about self-doubt. Judging from the blogs and memoirs I’ve read, I’m not unique. Dealing with the doubt is part of the artist’s job. But Anne Lamott is only picking up icky spiders of doubt and putting them in a jar (Bird By Bird). I feel like I’m trying to walk a mile wearing leg irons while wrestling off a too-tight sweater.

So my second novel, the one I sent to 39 agents, has this hard-driving, ambitious, young female protagonist. She’s confident, smart, successful in worldly terms, and not introspective. Someone with whom I could only hope to identify. So what did I do to her? Well, naturally, I had to bring her life to a series of crises. I had to rub her face in her lack of insight, to force her to confront herself, to make her change. Like I had to punish her for being everything I’m not. To justify the more introspective, thoughtful life.

In the end, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want her crushed. I wanted her to just continue being herself, maybe with a bit of insight, enough to make her understand, but not enough to bring her to a standstill. There’s something so beautiful about living out your blunders instead of pondering all the possibilities without risking anything. At least it makes for good stories.

My point? Ah, yes, here it comes: my point. Let me get all Jungian for a moment. Perhaps all this doubt and conflict is the shadow side of something good. Let's put it another way. A Keatsian way. Maybe it's the potential for Negative Capability that I possess.  According to Keats, "what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."*

Keats was talking about being able to dissolve his own personality so as to enter the psyches of all types of people, to understand much about human nature, in order to portray it convincingly in art. After all, nuance is the essence of round characters and the enemy of fundamentalism (to move to the religio-political plane for a moment.)

Well, ahem, I've written myself into a corner. I am NOT comparing myself to Shakespeare (or Keats). Promise. After all, on the "without any irritable reaching after fact and reason," front I'm a fail. It's the acceptance of all these uncertainties and doubts as fundamental to my make-up that I resist. No, I'm just looking for the positive spin, just looking for a way to take another shackled step.

BTW, I'm not loving this blog post, but as any one of my dear Type A friends might say (while completing another triatholon or starting another company), I'm not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

*(The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 5th Edition, ed.Margaret Drabble, Oxford Univ. Press: 1985, p689.)

1 comment:

  1. 'I'm not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.'

    This may just be my new motto. I too can't understand type A organised person. I can't organise anything!