“All great art has as its core a mystery. If the Mona Lisa didn’t have that mysterious smile, she’d just be another Italian broad.” — Tom Robbins
On March 8, 2014, Malaysian airline flight 370 disappeared, and for weeks after I was captivated by the story. I am not an aviation buff, nor do I track airline safety records. No one I knew was on the plane, yet I found myself pausing to listen to the top-of-the-hour news for updates. How could a thing that big just vanish? Why couldn’t it be tracked? We all have instant GPS on our phones for Chrissakes. How could a plane full of people be gone?
Over dinner one night, when the topic of conversation was this flight, I realized that it was the mystery of the thing that made it so fascinating. In this age of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and whatever other new social media platforms are out there, nothing is a secret anymore. Very little is left up to us to ponder and explain on our own.
We can google a definition for the word gnomist, research the ecoregions of Zambia on Wikipedia, and watch a YouTube video on how to screw in a light bulb. It was the very fact that we couldn’t find it that made the plane’s vanishing so interesting. It was a question that couldn’t be answered with the tap of a few keys on a keyboard.
Which led me to think about why it is that I write. I was still in the Incubator. EVERYTHING led to writing. I realized that I write for many reasons, but one is for the pure mystery of it. Even the very act of writing is in itself a mystery. My characters lead me to my story. The story somehow comes to a conclusion that may or may not surprise me. And who really knows how to write a novel? There are rules, of course, but they are always broken, some with wild success and some not, and no one knows why. I turned to my fellow Incubees for answers and got many insightful responses, and at their cores, quite a few hit upon this idea of mystery.
“I write to understand, to figure out what I know, to find answers to questions.” — Margaret Zamos-Monteith
“I think that’s why the same themes (belonging/finding family) show up in my work over and over-because they are themes that I want to explore both intellectually and emotionally.” — Louise Miller
“So that I could be the God of my own little world.” — RJ Taylor
“If I go one day without writing, I know it. If I go two days, my girlfriend knows it. If I go three days, everyone knows it.” — Jennie Wood
“I write because it’s one of the only things that completely involves me when I do it. It makes me feel alive. Usually I’m kind of restless and detached from things but when I write I am totally engaged.” — Emily Ross
Writing is a way of exploration, and as the answers above show, we write to solve a problem, to figure something out, to see how the heart and the head are connected, or to see what it would be like run a world. We sit down at a blank page, and most of the time, it’s a mystery as to how that blank page is going to fill up with words strung together into a story. It’s a mystery as to what character A is going to do when she encounters character B. It’s a mystery how we are going to get to the end of 75,000 words with a logical and satisfying conclusion. And as the last two quotes demonstrate, it’s a mystery as why we are even writing to begin with. Sure, if we don’t write, we feel a certain way, but what tangible thing is it that compels us to keep at it day after day with little reward?
Like Tom Robbins said, art has as its core a mystery, and writing is no different. As I was thinking about that plane that disappeared, I found myself creating scenarios – the what ifs of what could have happened. Mystery led me to story in an attempts to makes sense of things for myself.
I think we all are searching for something when we form words into paragraphs, paragraphs into pages, and pages into stories. We are all answering something when we write, whether it is why Mary hates Min Pins, or why Frank can’t bear to walk up the stairs to the second floor of his own house. The next time you google why your dog barks at people in pink or what is happening to the rain forest think about how boring life would be with all the answers given to us. Instead of turning to the internet, pick up a pen and a piece of paper and figure it out for yourself. You might be surprised at what story you come up with it, and who knows? Maybe you’ll solve a mystery.