Does examining a thing closely ruin it?
I have wrestled with this question in my mind for nearly a year. What first seemed a simple answer, if a subjective one, has spiraled out of control. I argue with myself, holding grand debates in the car or the shower as I assume both sides and advocate faithfully for one or the other, channeling (in my head, anyway) equal parts Cicero and Atticus Finch, but even so I can’t conclusively settle the matter. Even as I sit down to write this, I am not convinced that I have come to a satisfactory conclusion. So bear with me as I attempt to examine my thoughts on the matter (to assay them, if you will), and we’ll try to tease this out a bit.
The question arose in a fiction writing class. We were examining a short story (Ethan Canin’s “Emperor of the Air”), looking at the craft elements and moves it was making, and one of my classmates said, “I love this story, but we’re ruining it” —the implication being that by looking at it as analytically as we were, by dissecting it in an attempt to understand what made it work, we were robbing ourselves of our ability to enjoy the story for its own sake. I remember that the statement gave me considerable pause, even in the moment, because I had always thought that understanding a thing made it better, made one’s appreciation if it more fine-tuned and layered. That there might be other schools of thought had never even occurred to me.
So I spoke to my classmate, and eventually others in my writerly peer group, about their thoughts on the matter—and while it was enlightening, to be sure, it didn’t result in any sort of consensus or majority on the issue of knowledge versus wonder; it seemed, rather, to be a matter of taste.
And so here I am, still trying to figure out the answer to the question, or whether there even is one.
Let’s start with a quote. Good blog posts have quotes in them, right?
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.”
– Albert Einstein
What this sentiment looks toward, I think, is the preservation of one’s sense of wonder (ostensibly at the natural world or the physical universe, given the quote’s provenance). It’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? Faced with an increased understanding of the universe, there are those for whom its mysterious and grandiose nature becomes somehow more mundane, less wondrous, and others for whom such understanding does not diminish their childlike excitement at its still incomprehensible size and complexity.
In my aforementioned informal, inexhaustive, and thoroughly unscientific survey of writers in my immediate vicinity, I found that this seems to hold pretty uniformly true: one either thinks that knowing how a thing—in this case, a piece of writing—works ruins one’s ability to enjoy it as much, or one thinks that the knowing increases that enjoyment. I’ll take a moment to look at both sides while using another, more concrete example: a stage illusion.
In the late nineties and early aughts, there were a bunch of shows that purported to reveal the secrets of stage magic (like this one). A masked magician would come on stage, perform a trick, and then would break it down, show its individual mechanisms, and demonstrate how it was done. The shows attracted outrage from many magicians of the time, which only fueled their controversial appeal. So how might such a show affect your enjoyment of stage magic?
Knowing is Bad
You’ve always loved the “saw the lady in half” trick. You look forward to it in every magic show, and you’re always disappointed when the magician doesn’t perform it. You know in the back of your mind that it’s just an illusion, but that doesn’t matter to you; for a moment, when you watch it, you can almost let yourself believe that magic is real.
Then you see the TV special, and the spell is broken. It turns out—spoiler alert—that the lady curls up in the top half of the box, sticks some fake legs out the bottom, and that’s all there is to it. What once, when shrouded in mystery, seemed wondrous to you, now seems banal; the gold filigree has flaked off and turned out to be just a shiny, chintzy lacquer all along. Not only is the Emperor not wearing any clothes, but he’s not even really an Emperor, just some weird nudist with delusions of grandeur and a way with words. Your favorite trick isn’t merely ruined, but you feel like you’ve lost something else: a part of yourself you can never quite regain.
Knowing is Good
You love the same trick as your friend, above, for the same reasons. As they do, you’re aware that it’s just an illusion, but that doesn’t get in the way of your enjoyment.
You see the special, and all is revealed—the contortions of the assistant, the protruding prosthetic pseudopods, etc. —but, unlike your friend, this doesn’t bother you much. After all, you already knew it wasn’t really magic; and, when you watch the trick performed again, you can see all the little moments, the painstakingly choreographed combinations of misdirection and athleticism that create this delicate illusion for the audience.
Now, when you see the trick in the future, you will be part audience member, part co-conspirator. If the magician can perform the trick well enough that even you can’t spot the transitions, the tiny flaws that only you (and anyone else who watched the TV special, you suppose, but this is your hypothetical future, so none of them will be there) know to look for, then that magician is skilled indeed. You will delight in the audience’s amazement, can even share in it. You can give the magician a nod at the end of their show, as they take their bows; you can believe they see you in the crowd, make eye contact, and the two of you share a special moment of understanding between insiders. They will nod back, and the moment will be complete.
If you’re still with me, you’re beginning to see my conundrum. Both perspectives are valid. So who cares?
I think it comes back to the idea of wonder. In any kind of creative endeavor, a sense of wonder is essential if you want to create work that lasts. It doesn’t have to be flashy, but if there is nothing in a work of art that can enrapture, that can make a reader sit back for a moment and say, “Wow,” then the odds of it having a long-lasting impact are rather low. Human beings hunger for things to be amazed by, whether they be gods or magic or just stories we tell each other over and over again—stories that get at the heart of what it means to be human. If a work of art can’t capture that spirit, if only a little bit, then it won’t stick.
It’s important, therefore, to know which side of the Line of Mystery™ you stand on when you set out to write. If too much knowledge of a thing ruins the wonder, ruins the sense of discovery—for you or for your readers—then I say don’t think too much about it; forge ahead, and fix whatever problems you may run into after the fact. If the knowledge doesn’t ruin it, then feel free to get further into the weeds earlier—so long as you don’t get so off-track that you forget to create the thing at all. But above all, do not compromise the wonder or the joy of discovery of your art (if only for your own sake).
And maybe there’s a third option, as well. Or more than one. Binaries and other strict dualities are too limiting (and practically gauche in academic circles, at this point), and very little in any kind of art is so simple as a True/False question, or even your standard multiple choice. Art is fill-in-the-blank, or free response—hell, trying to talk about this one thing turned into an essay question. Point is, maybe the knowing of a thing, how much you can discover about the mystery while maintaining the wonder, isn’t nearly so uncomplicated.
This brings me back to the Einstein quote. Despite the fact that it sets up one of the oh-so-passé binaries, despite not taking a definitive position, it’s still weirdly inspiring. Either nothing is miraculous, or everything is. That Einstein was a pretty smart guy, and said some pretty smart things.
Only Einstein probably never said it (item #6).
I know, right? Those of you who already knew that, who have been shaking your head at my ignorance this whole time, are likely feeling vindicated. Those of you who, like me, had no idea (until I decided to fact-check it for this post) are likely experiencing a bit of cognitive dissonance.
So my question to you becomes this: is the sentiment less worthy if it’s not from Einstein? Is the maintenance of wonder less important, even if it wasn’t advocated by the person whose name is now synonymous with genius? Does knowing this about the quote ruin it?
I don’t think it does, necessarily—of course, I told you earlier that I generally wouldn’t. But there are other schools of thought.
Perhaps I’ve been going about this all wrong. Maybe the point isn’t to figure out which perspective is correct; rather, it may be that the point is just what I’ve already suggested: to figure out which outlook applies to you, or whether you’re even somewhere in the middle—or somewhere else entirely—so you can move forward with your work without inadvertently compromising the wonder that keeps you (and your readers) coming back again and again. After all, more self-knowledge is always good, right?
Mike W. Leavitt is an MFA Candidate in Fiction at the University of Central Florida, where he often writes about things that make people sad. A hopeless academic and an inveterate nerd, Mike realized he wanted to study creative writing during his time in the United States Marine Corps, while scribbling a story in a notebook from inside a bulletproof truck in the middle of the Afghan desert. He graduated with a BA in English from UCF in 2015, and hopes to graduate with his MFA in the Spring of 2018. In the meantime, he currently—precariously—balances his writing and his studies, teaching creative writing students of his own, and chasing after a hyperactive toddler at home.”