Are You Sure about That?: The Importance of Uncertainty

Each morning at the local YMCA where I work out, a group of retired men gather at a table to drink coffee and to express their strong opinions about everything under the sun. They’re certain about their beliefs, too certain it seems to me. I have a hard time trusting those who believe they know everything there is to know. To me, such beliefs stand in the way of the appreciation of the nuances of complex issues. Furthermore, such certainty makes little room for the opinions of others. Such certainty shuts down conversation and appeals only to those who share the speaker’s beliefs.

Issues worth discussing are issues that are complicated and made up of many layers, often contradictory ones. I’m particularly thinking about this when it comes to the writing of creative nonfiction. Imagine the essay that begins with a writer who believes he or she knows everything about the topic under consideration. How can that essay begin to explore its own complexity? How can it work its way toward surprise and discovery? How can it deepen its subject in ways that will delight or move us? In fiction, we often advise students to write what they know. In nonfiction, a more questioning approach often yields the most genuine results.

Consider what happens if an essayist poses a question early in the writing. Doesn’t that question level the ground between reader and writer? The writer isn’t talking to a reader. That writer is talking with a listener. It’s as if someone has sat down next to us on a city bus or a train and has said to us, “Here’s something that mystifies me. Can you please help me figure it out?” We become co-explorers through the mysteries of human existence. We, at the writer’s invitation, become co-travelers as we look at and think about various aspects of the central question.

The question, even if not explicitly stated, makes us more likely to speculate about answers. Such a strategy can also lead to more questions which serve to deepen the original one even if they don’t eventually lead to the answer. We should probably accept the fact that, when it comes to the questions that matter, there really isn’t a single answer. There is only the consideration of the layers of the question and whatever meaning we can make from our exploration. A good essayist embraces the fact that often the questions are much more important than the answers.

“In all affairs,” Bertrand Russell said, “it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” The next time you begin an essay, think about what brought you to your subject matter. What are you unsure of? What do you not know? Write from that question. Let it guide you through your material. Let it take you places in your thinking and feeling you didn’t know you’d ever go.


  1. Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 27, 2018 at 3:29 am

    This reminds me of a conversation I had in a writing workshop I used to go to. We were helping a writer figure out the general direction of her novel and one of the members said ‘What answers does it give?’ At that moment, I had an epiphany. I wasn’t interested in a story with answers. I was interested in a story with questions. And a satisfying essay does this too, by looking at a subject and saying ‘come with me, there’s more to this than you think’.

    • Lee Martin on March 27, 2018 at 3:26 pm

      Not only is there more to this than you think, there’s more to this than the writer even knows. Thanks for the comment, Roz!

  2. Clay Cormany on April 2, 2018 at 12:18 pm

    Your post underscores the need for writers to be careful about using absolute words, such as “never,” “always,” “everyone,” and “impossible.” Such words leave no room for uncertainty or flexibility. If it’s “impossible” for your explanation to be wrong, neither you nor your readers will have much incentive to explore deeper or alternative possibilities.

    • Lee Martin on April 5, 2018 at 1:59 pm

      Absolutely, Clay! (pun intended)

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