In college, I asked my wife, “Why is everyone so sure of everything, while I’m sure of nothing?”
Like most universities during the late 1970s, the campus I attended was charged, the atmosphere turbulent. The Cold War raged. The Ayatollah Khomeini touted the evils of America. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan. As an Air Force ROTC cadet, a walk across campus in my uniform took me past the hate-filled stares of protesting middle-eastern students, the respectful nods of elderly professors, and the confused looks of aging hippies who seemed frozen between spitting on me or simply asking how could I? They all seemed so sure of everything.
I didn’t agree with any of them. Yet, I didn’t precisely disagree either. However, their zeal sowed doubt. Lots of doubt. What was I doing with my life? Where was I headed? Was I willing to die? Worse yet, willing to kill? I kept mostly quiet, all my questions, big and small, and the doubts grew.
Then, I found Zamyatin, an author with many questions. In his novel WE, he wrote of a future city state where art was just another tool of government, all painting, poetry, and literature restricted to glorifying the “One State.” All citizens lived in glass apartments, all daily activities prescribed minute by minute. Zamyatin was a Russian. The year was 1921. And six decades later, WE was the perfect cure for my doubts. I wanted to stand against the corruption of art, the destruction of human hope.
So what does all this have to do with my writing? Everything. For the start of any good story begins with a good question. What if a doctor sewed together body parts and sent a bolt of lightning through the patchwork corpse? What if an obsessed sea captain chased a great white whale across the ocean? What if a white lawyer defended an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman in 1930s southern Alabama?
And perhaps, “Why is everyone so sure of everything, while I’m sure of nothing?” Although I didn’t know it at the time, that’s a great beginning question for a writer.
Stream of Consciousness Quote:
“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.” –Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird