N Is for Negative Capability

I was thinking that N might be for Narrative, but then I read the “N Is for Narrative” I posted during the 2017 A to Z Challenge in this blog and thought No way could I surpass that.

I’ve had thoughts like that recently when rereading stuff I wrote 40 years ago. Has it all been downhill from there? I can’t help wondering. At the same time, I see in those long-ago essays and poems strong traces of who and where I was at the time, what I was reading, what my friends and I were talking about, what I thought was so important I was moved to write about it. Moral of story: Write it now. Don’t put it off.

So Narrative was out. The obvious alternatives, to my mind anyway, were Names and Negative. I could say a few things about names, but the thought didn’t inspire me. “Negative” felt, well, too negative. Not that learning to deal with “no” isn’t crucial for writers. The “no” coming from within can shut us down completely. The “no” coming from publishers, publications, and workshops or courses we were dying to get into can be devastating.

I didn’t want to write about that either. Not now, anyway.

Mulling over “negative,” “negativity,” and “negation” on my walk this morning, I recalled a workshop leader, a poet, talking about “negative capability.” The phrase came from John Keats, but I didn’t remember what it meant. So I looked it up.

The Poetry Foundation includes “negative capability” in its “Glossary of Poetic Terms,” calling it “a theory first articulated by John Keats about the artist’s access to truth without the pressure and framework of logic or science.” The entry goes on: “Contemplating his own craft and the art of others, especially William Shakespeare, in one of his famous letters to relatives Keats supposed that a great thinker is ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’”

The Wikipedia entry is more enlightening. First it gives the phrase in fuller context: “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.” Then it notes, one, that this was the only time Keats used the phrase, and two, that the letter in which it appeared didn’t circulate widely until after Keats’s death (in 1821, of TB, in Rome, at the age of 25).

Aha, think I. All we really have is Keats’s definition: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” All the rest is commentary, some by Keats in his short lifetime and even more in the ensuing three centuries by subsequent scholars, critics, poets, and the like. It must be OK to push all the talk about “beauty is truth and truth, beauty” (from Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), about art vs. science and intuition vs. reason, to one side and just focus on what Keats wrote in that letter:

“. . . when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Turn that “man” into “poet” or “writer” or “artist,” or “scientist” or “philosopher,” for that matter, and you’ve got it. It’s about being open to what flows into your mind, or what flows through your fingers when you’re freewriting. It may not be fact or reason you’re tempted to reach out after — more likely it’ll be undone dishes or unmade phone calls or the terror of the blank page. The blank page is where it starts.

Negative capability. Openness. Being ready for anything.

F Is for Freewriting

Freewriting is like brainstorming for one, though you can do it in the company of others. A writers’ group I once belonged to started each meeting with freewriting. We took turns picking a prompt, usually a word, phrase, or the beginning of a sentence, and a time limit, usually 10 or 15 minutes. One person set the timer and off we went.

We all wrote in longhand, on yellow pads or in whatever notebook we’d brought with us. The only rule was Keep writing. Put pen or pencil to paper and keep your hand moving till the bell rings.

You didn’t have to read what you’d written aloud, but all of us almost invariably did. Our stuff was amazing — funny, profound, startling, poignant — but what amazed me most was what I’d managed to put on paper in 10 or 15 minutes. Sitting at the computer it might take me an hour or more to write a paragraph I was satisfied with. Most of that hour would be spent staring at the screen with my hands nowhere near the keyboard.

That writers’ group experience and the “morning pages” I did while following Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way sold me on writing in longhand.

Maybe it’s because I was an editor as well as a writer, but I could look at a rough draft — my own or someone else’s — and my mind would be full of ideas of things to try: swap those two paragraphs, delete that sentence, expand this a bit, try this word instead of that one. A blank page, however, would provoke unease that could quickly escalate to procrastination, paralysis, and writer’s block.

Something similar often happened when I got stuck in the middle of something. It was like coming to the brink of a very high cliff. Seeing no way to proceed, I’d turn back and give up. Small wonder, then, that I wasn’t able to break the 40-page barrier: anything under that I could do, and pretty well, but I hadn’t been able to complete a novel, because novels are a lot longer than 40 pages. Some writers are able to jump into a novel or other book-length work and keep going till they finish. Not me. I’d get stuck, and because I didn’t have a deadline — no one was waiting for it — I’d give up.

Freewriting got me unstuck. I’d take pen and paper, leave my desk, and go somewhere else. When I was living close enough, I could walk into town, buy coffee and a muffin, grab an empty seat, and write. Often I’d give myself a prompt: “I can’t write this scene because . . .” or “[Character A] walks into the kitchen and sees . . .” The words would pour out. It might take a few minutes before the nugget would appear, the clue to my way forward, but it always would appear. Gradually I developed a deep faith in freewriting, and in writing in longhand.

Some writers freewrite their whole first drafts: no outline, no roadmap, no notes. If writers really can be divided into planners and (seat-of-the-)pantsers, they’re the pantsers. Most of us are probably a bit of both, depending on the project. Whichever, freewriting is a handy tool no matter how you use it: to warm up, to play, to get unstuck, or to write whole drafts.