Last week I read a very good article titled “When Things Go Missing,” by Kathryn Schulz, which appeared in a recent issue of The New Yorker. As the title indicates, the article is about losing things. The author begins with anecdotes about losing one’s possessions, such as wallets, clothing, keys, and cars. You know she’s going to write about losing more important things, and she does – about losing people.
At 7,000 words the article was long but very readable. I began reading it on my phone while I was waiting to pick up my kids and kept reading it even after they got in the car and wanted me to start driving.
Later I fell to wondering how the author had written at such length on a topic you might not think anyone could write a lot about. So I read the article again and noted all the different directions in which the author took it, each like a ray radiating out from a center to illuminate it. There was a paragraph or more on all of these strands: anecdotes about lost objects, people known to the author who lose things often, advice people like to give on how to find things, advice the internet gives on how to find things, types of things it’s possible to lose, data people have compiled on lost things, explanations for why we lose things, why we feel the need to know how something got lost, why we like to blame other people for our losses, why it’s more worrisome to lose things when we get older, and finally, the worst things we can lose – those close to us.
By the time we get to the end of the article, the strands of it have wrapped around us securely. We get the sense that the author has considered her theme from all angles, deeply. The resulting perception of depth provides the piece with both momentum and credibility.
If there’s one thing I miss about my former life in economics it’s the sublime feeling of having explored something in depth. There was a problem and there were the resources to study it. As well, I suppose, there were deadlines, support, the need to reach closure – or else.
I find it so challenging to get the same sense when I’m writing fiction. The problems are hard to define. The resources, if you count all books, are infinite or, really, none. Countless influences addle my brain. Writing fiction imposes many constraints – you can’t just write about a theme in a story – though it provides more artistic leeway.
At the same time it’s easy to perceive when any piece of writing, like this blog post, has or lacks depth. As in people, shallowness isn’t attractive in writing.
I read this once about the philosopher Spinoza, who was deeply interested in science and mathematics, that for him the ultimate benefits of scientific study were spiritual. I like this thought so much. It seems to explain why I’m so preoccupied with depth. I could extend the thought to writing and say that the more considered the writing, the better for the soul.
–Anu Kandikuppa, 2016 Gish Jen Fellow