Subtracting ... explanation
This month I'm allowing space, mystery, uncertainty
There is a certain exhilaration that can take place inside an artist when she chooses not to explain.
In the creative act, I mean, not in ordinary life, although I see the possibility for liberation there too. The injunction to ‘never apologise, never explain’ has always seemed completely foreign to me. An appealing command perhaps, but also absurd, a clear impossibility. Even if you thought it was ethically permissible, or theoretically possible, how on earth might one act upon it? I didn’t know.
But now, in fiction writing, I do.
My latest novel, Stone Yard Devotional, is constructed of things unexplained. If it is not too unseemly to make such an assessment of one’s own work, I think it is my best book, largely because I found a way to leave behind the need to explain. Which is also to say, the need to be liked or approved of.
Equating approval with ‘explanation’ is plainly ridiculous – my own love of art often depends on the work’s inherent sense of mystery, the maker’s gift of space in which I can make my own meaning from it. And nothing is more tedious than an over-explainer. Nevertheless, I realise that this equation has lurked inside me for a long time. It’s partly a people-pleasing impulse, some subconscious need not to inconvenience anyone by causing the slightest confusion. But more soberingly, I now see the explaining impulse as the desire for control of my reader. My describing a vase, for example, so precisely that there can be no mental picture available to the reader except the exact one I give them, may not be a gift to that reader. It may be a straitjacket.
Letting go this need to control is a liberation. But still, leaving space and gaps can feel to the beginner non-explainer somehow cavalier, irresponsible even. It also feels kind of exciting. It might even feel like growing up as an artist.