Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Power of Unanswered Questions

As someone who loves it when the ducks are lined up, I used to hate unanswered questions. Problems I couldn't solve, dilemmas unresolved, drove me nuts. I worked hard at applying solutions to every problem.

I felt great when the issue got fixed. I tallied up answers like gold.

Then I began writing books. Books are large, unweildy events, worse than organizing a family wedding. Hard to predict what will happen. Hard to plan entirely. Full of unresolved problems and big questions that may not get solved until the final draft. My first books were nightmares, partly because of my need to solve every problem right away. Luckily, back in the olden days when I began publishing, I worked with patient editors who taught me the power of the unanswered question.

This may not be your issue--at all! But if it is, read on.

Love the Questions Themselves
Rainier Maria Rilke, the German writer responsible for the beautiful volume Letters To A Young Poet, said, "Have patience with everything that remains unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them."

Rilke's point was that hanging around with questions leads to the best answers. You need time to live your way to the answers. There's real gold in the questions themselves because they open up the creative self.

I've often asked my book-writing classes to begin a list of questions about their books-in-progress. Add to the list, one question daily, and let yourself muse and wonder about what the answer could possibly be. Once I became patient enough to try this myself, I saw great improvement in my writing. It was as if a creative faucet got turned on.

I wasn't just working my problems to find solutions; I was creating something new. My random, creative, wondering and wandering writer inside was excited.

Does Unanswered Equal More Creative?

Why are unanswered questions so helpful for book writers? Why do we need NOT to know everything before we begin our writing process?

Theme, subtext, and inner story all emerge from the random, creative side, not the linear left brain of the writer. You can't get good theme by going after it directly. It bubbles up. It surprises you. A writing mentor once told me: "If it doesn't surprise you, it won't surprise the reader." You'll have a too-predictable plan, leading to an unoriginal and uninspired book.

This week, make a list of unanswered questions. Things that are worrying you about your outline or theory, plot or characters, theme or beginning or ending. Let the list simmer. Let the questions become part of your breathing and living each day. When you get the bubbling up of a possible creative idea that addresses your question, listen and take notes.

Your muse is talking.

PS This exercise isn't just limited to writing. I've used it to create answers to tangles with family and friends, health issues, everything under the sun. It's fun, creative, and it works.