Friday, December 19, 2008


My friend Kate was in a band that released a full-length album last year. The album is called "I Am Magically Happening," and if you read the liner notes, you learn that the title came from a mishearing of something else (a song lyric, I think). I thought this was a novel and/or strange creative method when I first read about it. But now, when I'm thinking about where I get my ideas, I realize that mishearings and other general misunderstandings make up a large portion of my inspiration.

Misunderstanding (and striving to correct it) is a fairly solid description of the human condition, as far as I can tell. This is why science and religion are so darn popular. And literature knows it, too. Maybe I've misunderstood, but it seems to me that many of the best stories are based entirely on misunderstandings. Gilbert and Sullivan's entire oeuvre and most of the rest of 18th century dramatic literature wouldn't exist without mistaken identity--a real plot engine that drives conflict, dramatic irony, and resolution with one pump of the gas pedal.

The other way to think about it is to say that we write because we want to understand the world better. Stories are about unusual people (or about the ways in which normal people are, after all, unusual) not just because they make for interesting reading, but because fiction writers want to stretch the limits of their understanding by exploring the unknown. The old saw, "write what you know" means something entirely different when placed next to the wisdom from the Tao Te Ching, "who knows that he does not know is the highest."

When we admit to misunderstanding the world, we admit that we are fallible. When we write to understand, we strive for improvement. Tell me about the ways in which you have misunderstood the world. Did your misunderstanding lead to great ideas?

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