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Writing

When The Only Thing We Need Is To Get Out of Our Own Way

Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

Seek the questions. There is no right answer.

James Thurber once said, “It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.”

I believe in this 14-word philosophy as much as I believe in the Golden Rule, gravity, and, as Ram Dass said, “We’re all just walking each other home.”

Yet I keep looking for answers. Eureka ones. The ones that will strike me down on my private Road to Damascus. The answers to these questions:

Why can’t I write the things I want to?

Why am I stuck and what am I stuck on, exactly?

Seeking answers — I’m particularly fond of asking why — is a hard habit to break. A habit that has always had legs in my neurotic pacings, but has grown arms during shelter-in-place. Today I noticed that a skull has begun to form.

The idea of finding the right answer is simple. To be instructed is alluring. A reflection of humans’ ostensible need to be led. To be comforted by direction and validation. You do it this way. Just say the Sinner’s Prayer. Seven Things You Need to Stop Doing Right Now (click here).

No wonder modern methods of testing reflect this kind of seeking. The simple binary: is it true or false? And the multiple choice ones, meant to tempt us with doubt: two may sound good, but which is the best, most rightest answer?

Breaking bits down for us to more easily digest and throw up on a test.

Photo by Jodi Barnes; art by Sarah Bill

For years, a piece of construction paper with Thurber’s quote stenciled by my then 8-year-old daughter, was taped to my office wall at NC State University. I taught undergraduate and graduate classes at the business school for 11 years.

Although compelled to ask 300 students in my auditorium sections to bubble in their best and tidy answers to questions via Scantron forms, I knew this was a disservice to them. When testing smaller classes (60 or fewer), I preferred short answer and essay formats to pose situational questions. Even though most students tended to get higher grades on the open-ended questions, I got a good deal of pushback — especially from undergrads. Most preferred the definitive answer. Because, “I know how to study for that.”

So I sprinkled in some definitives but also fought back with some “talk to me about what you think you know” items. And then a few years later, I joined another business school. Myriad frustrations — not so many with students, but with administration — led to a question, actually three, that led to my resignation.

“How long can I accept the constraints (loss of academic freedom; having syllabi pre-approved) and demands (more sections! more butts in seats! more assessments! more data!) of a job that has decreased in value, extrinsically and intrinsically?

How likely is it that those constraints and demands will ease up?

Can I be part of this industrial machine, or pretend to be, without more harm to my body, mind and spirit?”

The answers were no longer, not at all likely, and no.


Photo by Ross Sneddon on Unsplash

I’ve given up on most true-false/multiple choice questions and answers when it comes to human behavior. (But honestly, I still seek them.)

In the last four weeks, I’ve had time to write. And I’ve written. Some. It’s all over the place, pieces of pieces that could be considered poems, essays, short stories, maybe even book chapters.

They come without genre. Genres seem like premature questions that can lead to the wrong answers.

Regardless, I can’t seem to help myself. An obsession with having to know. Something. Especially when so much of our present and future seems impossibly uncertain.

When I dwell on where does this fit? What form should this take? I begin to give up, to consider it a musing or relegate it to a diary entry or a thought while shaving.

I know not to wait for the right answer, but I could stand a little insight. Which questions could help with insight? I think that’s what Thurber meant.


Photo by Elmer Cañas on Unsplash

I don’t know where to find insight but I’d bet money that it doesn’t live close to judgment. Insight is allergic to judgment. I know this based on when I stop writing. My disoriented story or the poem I’m still re-writing after two (or 10) months is still shit.

Curiosity is merely questioning, with real interest (not fear), why things aren’t clear to us. Curiosity is not an idiom that killed the cat. It’s not just for kids exploring nature.

Curiosity created light bulbs and frescos, flying machines and fire. Curiosity is the reason most of us are here. Two people fumbling around with hormones, needs and emotions, not knowing or caring if they got the right answer. Just pursuing a curiosity that feels so damned good in the discovery.

That’s what I want to access: a question or two that could lead to more insight. Not to the holy grail of definitive knowledge, wisdom or self-actualization. I just want to have a creative practice that doesn’t get all screwed up by thinking too deeply about what I’m thinking about the worth of what I’m doing.

Here are my questions that I hope will lead me to insight, even a glimpse:

If I am getting in my own way when I think judgmental thoughts about my work, is it best to try to resist these? (If so, what are creative, fun ways to resist?)

What would happen if I let go, let my judgments mow me down, time after time? Would they a) they stop me from writing, or b) would I realize that these thoughts are powerless — they can distract but not stop me?

What is option c?

Is there a need for d?

I think I’d rather write an essay.

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