I am probably writing this blog post too soon because it is a thought process in progress. But that also suits the topic. I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately, I just haven’t figured it out. But I might never figure it out. So here goes:
How do we know what we know? Or another way of putting this is: how can we be sure that what we know is true? That it won’t be disproved in a month, two years, a decade?
I read a lot about diet and exercise and weight loss and keeping weight off. O.K., who doesn’t? This topic is everywhere, all the time, and each article promises the Answer in the headline. And never really delivers. Because there’s always another study or expert to contradict. Here are just a few of the things I’ve learned from reading articles and books lately:
- If you want to build muscles you should lift heavier weights with fewer repetitions. (Sister-in-law Essie’s response to that: “That’s not what my trainer says; she says lighter weights, more repetitions." Essie’s trainer is out of date. Until the next study. Ditto pretty much everything else I’m going to say, I’m sure.)
- For weight loss/maintenance of weight loss you should run longer, but at a slower pace.
- For weight loss/maintenance of weight loss you should give up your chair and stand a lot.
- For weight loss/maintenance of weight loss you should do moderate exercise for an hour a day, or more vigorous exercise for half an hour a day.
- You should run barefoot because that is better for your feet and your whole body. (My father, who admonished me never to go barefoot even in the house—he had seen too many awful foreign objects get stuck in peoples’ feet—is turning over in his grave at the thought of this one.)
I could go on, but you get the idea. Weight loss and exercise and health is just one of the areas where this is prevalent. What about the discovery that the great Roman Vishniac faked some of his photographs?
I have begun to think that there are very few things that we really do know. Death and Taxes, right? But my husband just finished a book about scientists who think maybe we don’t have to die after all. We being not necessarily us, but our descendants. Yes. Maybe our great grandchildren won't die. But that defies everything we know now to be true.
O.K., then, so how do we know what we know, and how do we know what we don’t really know and how do we deal with the uncertainty not just in our lives but MORE IMPORTANTLY when we are writing for children? Those children trust us to tell them the truth. But truth changes. Facts are disproved. New truths are discovered. Books are bound and printed. Sometimes you can make changes in a later edition, but that doesn't help you to nail down what the truth is NOW as you are writing.
My head hurts.
I've been thinking about this not only as I read but also as I start work on my new long non-fiction book. This book will present some problems because I just may not know the answer to everything, may not know the whole truth. It's not science, but it's history, and just like science, history can be a murky thing.
At a school visit last week, one of the PTO mothers asked me what happened if I was writing a non-fiction book and I just couldn't find something out. "Does it change the course of your writing?" she asked. The answer is: sometimes. Sometimes it changes the course of your writing, sometimes you have to figure out a way to finesse it. Usually when you can't find something out, you veer off to the side, or you go in a different direction entirely. Or you fill in what you can in a way that works almost as well. For example, I couldn't say in Charles and Emma exactly what Charles Darwin thought about God because I couldn't get into his head or even interview him (I'm good, but not that good). I could however, present what he had written at different times of his life. That is as close as I could get to the truth. But the question that people ask me all the time that I could not answer in the book is: What was wrong with Charles? What made him so sick? Will I ever have the answer to that? If I do, would I dare to publish it? What if new information came out that proved otherwise?
Sometimes you are lucky and you can write about something that you don't know for sure in a way that owns up to the uncertainty. That's a great way for our readers to begin to understand that truth can be slippery.
Speaking of luck--sometimes what you know changes in the course of writing a book, and that's a great thing. Back in 2001-2, I was working on a photobiography of John F. Kennedy. Between the time I said yes to the editor who wanted me to write the book and the time I had to turn in my first draft, there was new information discovered about J.F.K.'s health and his family's hard work to suppress his illnesses. That became a central theme of my book High Hopes. If I had written the book a year earlier, that theme, that truth, would not have been there. Now I just read that there are newly found interviews with Jackie Kennedy that will be published in a book. How different High Hopes might have been if those had been available. There might be new truths in those interviews that will supplant what I thought were truths. I very likely would have written a different book.
A similar bit of good fortune occurred while I was working on Charles and Emma. The people at The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online published images of Emma's diaries. Her entries gave me truths I would not have had otherwise. They were golden puzzle pieces that helped me put together the story, the truth. The truth as I came to see and understand it.
You are probably wondering why I have the picture of the seagull with the starfish. A few years ago on the ferry from North Vancouver (where we had taken a harrowing hike) back to Vancouver, we watched this poor seagull try over and over again try to swallow that starfish, but he just couldn't figure out how to get it down. Too many points. He kept turning it around and around but no matter how he turned it, he couldn't swallow that starfish. I am not sure why, but that for me is symbolic of this problem.