When in Doubt, Make Something Up

Subtitle: Literature and the Unknowable

It’s campaign season again (still?), which has me thinking about Truthiness. I’m for it, especially in politics, but that is another post entirely. The following is excerpted and adapted from an application essay I wrote for a PhD program some years ago. In case you’re wondering, I didn’t get in.

My need for knowledge borders on compulsive. Two years ago, my mother’s house was robbed while I visited her, and among the things stolen was my laptop. For me this was a tragedy, not because I loved my laptop so much—though I did love my eight-year-old PowerBook with a passion usually reserved for spouses and children—but because the robbers stole knowledge. Some of the data lost was heartbreaking in obvious ways—photos of my ten-week-old kitten, thousands of words of that year’s novel project, invitations I’d designed for my wedding—but I was equally disturbed by losing things like financial records and old calendar items. Now I will never know what I did on February third, 2008, or why it cost $27 cash. The information is lost, unknowable.

I’ll always love you, old lappy
Much of our world is unknowable. If even the specifics of my own life can be lost to robbers and imperfect memory, then we have little hope of solving the true mysteries of our universe. How did life begin on this
planet? Does it exist on others? History is filled with questions in need of
answers. I will never know why the pyramids were built. I will never know what crash-landed outside of Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. I will never know the last thought that flashed through the mind of the man sitting on the steps of Horishima’s Sumitomo Bank, before he was burned into a shadow.

This bothers me. But instead of turning diligently to the study of the past in an effort to unearth buried truths, instead of becoming a historian or an archaeologist, I turned to fiction. Because as excited as I get when scientists discover new nuggets of knowledge about the world, and as much as I love relics of past eras for the glimpse of lost times they carry with them, these things leave me unfulfilled. We can wire the dinosaurs’ bones into position, but we will never know what color their feathers were. What we are left with, in the absence of omniscience, are fragments. Carvings on cave walls. Ruins of palaces collapsed onto their footprints. Literature.

I mean, seriously. WTF?

In a very mundane sense, literature can tell us of otherwise forgotten things. It is always a reflection, and sometimes a terrific record, of the time that produced it. But it is not even this reflection that makes me love literature.

A work of fiction is a complete thing, pinched off from this world at the ends like a soap bubble from a wand, and within those worlds knowledge works differently. As a writer of fiction I control my world, and therefore I can know it utterly. It’s my creation, so within it I am omniscient. This is not to say that my inventions don’t sometimes surprise me, or that I spell out every detail down to the number of hairs on a character’s head. But if a question needs to be answered—if it’s important to know when a character’s last dentist appointment was, or how much she spent on cat food in March, or, indeed, how many hairs she has—all I have to do is write the answer. Nothing can be lost.

Nothing can be lost, and nothing need be unknowable. I don’t think humans will ever learn all the secrets of the creation of the universe or the birth of the species. But in my universe I can fashion a time machine from antique clocks and rubber bands, and take my characters back to watch it all from start to finish. And no one can argue that the fish walking out of the slime weren’t wearing wire-rim spectacles, because it’s my universe and within it my word is the truth.

And now, I must regain that feeling of godlike power, and use it to write some robot smut. Because why not?

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