On Knowing versus Being “Baffled,” and Which One Is More Productive, with Sincere Thanks to Wendell Berry

I enjoy not being certain about most things. But on one burning issue, I’m impatient for clarity.  Last fall, a recurring preoccupation of mine re-recurred.  (It has to do with being horrified by the foundational narrative of monotheism; I’ll post more on this soon.) This resurfacing of an earlier issue sent me to some fascinating books on psychoanalysis, theology, language, and myth–a couple of which I’d read before, and one new to me–for some solid, or at least plausible, answers.

But then, I had the poetry reading to prepare for, and after that, the holidays were suddenly demanding my attention, and then, a visiting family member treacherously introduced me to the crime series Lie to Me, and I put my reading on hold. Consequently, having stalled in my quest for answers, I put writing about everything on hold.

Then, today, I happened on this tasty morsel from a poem by one of my favorite nature writers, Wendell Berry, that a friend had emailed me months ago:

THE REAL WORK

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

(From Wendell Berry, Collected Poems)

This lovely passage got me started again. Not on the reading–that will happen when it happens, in the slivers of time between everything else–but on writing, and particularly, blogging. I’d somehow, subliminally, talked myself into the perception that until I’ve untangled the whole knotty theological problem I’m confronting, I won’t have anything to write about it.  However, as I told my first-year writing students over and over for twenty-odd years, having everything figured out comes at the end of a writing project (if ever), not at the beginning of it. It’s in the process of writing that I can discover what I think and what I have to say.

This is, naturally, the first thing I learned in graduate school about how to teach writing:   writing is a means of discovery. How easy this principle is to forget, though, when what I’m after is an answer, an explanation, a nice, hefty chunk of certainty. But if I attain that certainty, what then? I’ll need to find a new problem to be “baffled” by, since, as Berry says, “The mind that is not baffled is not employed.”

As WordPress is reminding me in the lower right-hand corner of this page I’m drafting (and revising and editing and re-arranging and re-reading), “Just write.” Okay, I will.

More, and right soon,
Jennifer

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