Geek Love author Katherine Dunn on the merits of making mistakes

Looking for writerly inspiration?  Try screwing up. 

In today's online edition of Poets & Writers, several dozen authors share tidbits on how they keep their creative juices flowing.  A lot of the advice is what you'd expect: read books; visit museums and galleries; listen to music; travel; take notes.  And then there's Katherine Dunn, author of the wonderfully strange Geek Love.  "Sometimes," Dunn writes, "all that saves me is being willing to make mistakes." 

Dunn is in good company.  As I note in the book, writers -- at least, writers of fiction and poetry -- often have an unusually close and comfortable relationship with wrongness.  One of the most famous formulations of this relationship comes from the poet John Keats.  In an 1817 letter to his brother, Keats writes that he had been arguing about books with a friend, and "at once it struck me":

what quality went to form a Man of Achievement in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously -- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

Keats's was right.  This "negative capability" -- the ability to live comfortably in the presence of mystery and the absence of certainty -- characterizes an unusually large number of literary high-achievers.  Take the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska: "Whatever inspiration is," she said in her 1996 Nobel Prize Acceptance speech, "it's born from a continuous 'I don't know.'"  Or take her colleague Anne Carson, who put it even more bluntly in a 2000 poem titled "Essay on What I Think About Most."  The poem opens with the lines: "Error. / And its emotions." 

Keats, Szymborska, Carson, Wilde, Joyce, Roth, Austen: all these and countless other writers have looked upon wrongness as a vital wellspring of creativity.  What makes that outlook most remarkable is how radically it diverges from the wider culture, in which error is generally regarded as an unwanted embarrassment, far better avoided than embraced.

Katherine Dunn, welcome to the ranks.  Writers are distinguished by many things, but one of them, it appears, is the capacity to think hard about error and its emotions.  The rest of us would do well to follow their lead.

Okay, maybe you don’t have strong beliefs about the “right” way to load a dishwasher, or about your sweetheart’s propensity to do it “wrong.” In that case, either you are unusually saintly or (like me) you don’t own a dishwasher. But you almost certainly get involved in domestic disputes about who’s right and who’s wrong all the time; we all do. Although interpersonal arguments can have a number of causes – from serious and painful breaches in trust to the fact that we haven’t had our coffee yet – an impressive number of them amount to a tug-of-war over who possesses the truth. We fight over the right to be right.