. . . Or, at least, this writer's delight. One of the reasons I write is to explore the human condition. There are many definitions of philosophy, but I like the simplest: the pursuit of wisdom.1 Formal philosophy might deal in theorems and systems, but in the end, this is what it's all about, isn't it? - finding out, if we can, how to live a good life.
It's a lifelong project. The world is immense and confusing, the problems we face complex and obscure, and here we are, without a user's manual! Or, perhaps, with too many user's manuals, when one considers the innumerable sacred books, schools of thought, and cultural traditions that point us in different directions.
Life is full of dilemmas, awash with paradoxes. In stories, we can examine these things, turn them over to view from different angles, and set them in motion through the actions of our characters. One of the delights of writing, at least for me, is that my characters have lives of their own. I don't always know what they're going to do. Sometimes their actions confound me and pull the story in a direction I hadn't anticipated - and then I learn surprising things!
Often, I have a certain idea I want to interrogate, and having multiple characters with their points of view and all their foibles, means I can look at the idea from different perspectives. For example, in my novel Mendacities, I wanted to explore the impact of secrets and lies. I gave each of my main characters a secret to carry. Then there were lies to protect the secrets. And before long, without much prodding from me, they were creating all manner of troubles for themselves and each other. There are a lot of hijinks in this story; but underneath, it's about these deeper questions we ask ourselves: what does truthtelling and authenticity look like in day-to-day life? When are white lies, okay? When does falseness become destructive? And what are the consequences?
Life is bountiful with mysteries and enigmas . . . (Photos from Vancouver, Montevideo, Singapore, and Montréal)
In Possession, I wanted to understand why people are so attached to owning things - more and more things, more than they can use, more than makes them happy, and even going beyond things to having a sense of ownership over geography or nationality, or even over other people. This is mysterious to me. For whatever reason, I'm unattached to "stuff." I find it no sacrifice to get rid of things, and because I've always travelled a lot and have lived all over the world, I own very little. Why do we human beings want to keep things so desperately? I see how ownership can make people miserable. They put so much energy into taking care of their stuff and they worry about it. Why? Once again, each of my main characters has a different relationship to ownership and different issues they must confront. Through my characters, I came to understand the issue better. And I want to learn more.
It seems strange to say, but it's true, that my characters make me more compassionate. If I'm going to write them well, with depth and dimension, I have to get right inside their heads and hearts. I have to be able to feel their motivations. It's an extended exercise in role playing, in a way. I cannot remain detached from their humanity, if I'm writing them from the inside out.
We write to know more and to feel more.
So, here's to world philosophy day, which reminds us of the great human endeavour: the pursuit of wisdom.
1 Merriam-Webster online dictionary.