Writers Journey: You Need Philosophy

When I started the Writers Journey series of articles, I made mention that a writer must have something to say. Further to that is: a writer needs to tap into some universal truths about the human psyche or condition. Even during periods of popular writing styles which went against such sentiments, such as the trenche-de-vie (slice-of-life) style, the most enduring of those works ended up touching upon core truths by way of subtext or analogy even when their writers were attempting not to do that.

In fact I would argue that part of writing is drilling down into a thought so far that you end up striking literary oil whether you wanted to or not. Most writers will eagerly tell you about their defining moments, moments when they really got into a piece of work. It’s the point where they can feel the whole of the work coalescing together like water slipping rapidly down the vacuum of a drain.

But how does a writer hone this skill for finding the core truths of life? There is the ultimate draft upon draft way until you blindly hit upon something. There are also other ways. One way of writing with something to say is to study philosophy. Here, you probably are wrinkling up your nose. And I did. When I started getting serious about writing in my early twenties I could not be bothered with such challenges. But there comes a point where life itself may toss a writer upon the rocks and leave them bereft of every floating surface that ever buoyed their perception of reality. Most people call this a mid-life crisis and when it comes it usually shakes up life and forces someone to find a new point of view. The mid-lifer reassesses life. Some people will take up a new point of view and others will refine and hone an old one.

Many people have made the claim that the best novelists are the ones who write past the age of forty. There is some merit to that, but I think the best novelists don’t need to wait until forty to get good material out; they need to study philosophy and test their world view. Most authors who’ve made it past a mid-life crisis have had the benefit of life experience unwittingly dropped upon their heads so at that point they are writing about the very crisis that has shifted their perception of life in general and all the research or soul-searching they had to do in order to get past it.

However, philosophy is nothing more than a codification of how you strive to live your life. Everyone really has a default philosophy and thus challenging that philosophy by reading other points of view will give you mental toning, if not a great deal of material from which to draw upon when writing. Keeping in mind that a novel (or a short story) is told from a particular character’s point of view, this is the biggest reason to flex your mental muscles and strive for more or for something different when you set to the page. A novel is the perfect playground for the clash of philosophical points of view.

I remember the first time I heard the philosophy of Descartes. I was certain I was listening to the rambling terrors of a post-traumatic stress victim, a mercenary who suffered a great deal of paranoia, and who was harboring a lot of guilt; although his idea of the world as nothing more than a great illusion was fascinating, I could not easily fathom it. I wanted to refute it, and really, many others have done so long before I did. This philosopher has had refutations since at least the Renaissance. The point in studying his philosophy was not to join it but to refine my definition of the world the way you run a gemstone against a sander. I could also walk away with a second philosophical point of view that would provide useful for me: I might use it as an antagonist’s point of view in a novel. Thus Descartes’ world view became something to push against. With alterations, it might even be adopted.

As writers we must get comfortable with the unfamiliar; with the arguments that we don’t like as much as the arguments we love. Even a summary study of philosophy is worth it for this benefit alone.

 

Meditation for your journal: Consider joining a free online course like www.coursera.org and learning some philosophy risk-free. Or pick up a basic Guide to Philosophy. Write down one philosophy you relate to and one philosophy you just can’t stand. Imagine a scenario enacted from their clash.