A real poem took the top of Emily Dickinson’s head off. Or so she said. John Prine wrote songs by the principle that he wouldn’t put anything in that shouldn’t be there. Simple enough. But how do you know that the world needs what you’ve written? The short answer seems cruel: it almost never does. You (we, I) write anyway. When it comes down to it, it’s up to you to decide what feels necessary. Necessary for you, necessary for an audience. It’s really very subjective.
In making this decision for myself, I have decided to practice what I’ve started preaching. “Write Mindfulness” should adhere to the related notion of Right Speech. That means asking myself three simple questions about what I’m writing:
In some ways, that addresses one subjective term (necessary) by introducing three new terms (true, helpful, compassionate) that are also potentially subjective. Is fiction “true”? It can be, and its truths are sometimes more penetrating than reality’s. Does being “helpful” or “compassionate” mean always being “nice” (and vice versa)? Not (ahem) necessarily. So there’s wiggle room, room for mistakes. But I can at least begin to answer the question of necessity (for myself) by asking if what I’ve written feels true, helpful, and compassionate. To me, at least.
The real task is to apply that set of queries to everything I write: editorial feedback, emails, texts, poems, novels, blog posts, post-it notes to my loved ones, even notes-to-self. It’s a high bar. Early returns indicate just how often my writing doesn’t clear it. And that shifts the paradigm. It’s not a cruelness to realize that something I’ve written isn’t necessary for me or for others. It’s a liberation. In hitting delete, in choosing not to save or send or publish, I have averted being untruthful, unhelpful, uncompassionate.
And when I do clear the bar, it’s that much more cause for celebration. Regardless of what the world thinks.
2 thoughts on “On Necessity”
TJ, after coming back to read your post the second time I realized that your three way test of necessity reminds me of the Four Way Test of Rotary. I no longer belong to Rotary but some things are hard to forget. Ethical tests somehow seem old fashioned now in this postmodern age of ours where everyone is seemingly free to declare his own identity, or gender, or pronouns or beliefs or antagonisms (no matter whether any of these fit with any societal continuum or tradition). Maybe it should not come as a surprise that our age is also defined by what some have started calling a “crisis of meaning.”
Like iron filings absent the pole of any magnet, each filing is free to scatter any way it wishes…and thereby most are lost.
The Four Way Test of Rotary:
1. Is it the truth?
2. Is it fair to all concerned?
3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
Thanks for the response, Rick. I have been interested in what novelist Zadie Smith has said in interviews re: ethics and aesthetics, and your comment spurred me to find this title, which I’d now like to read: https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/aesthetics-and-ethics-in-twentyfirst-century-british-novels-9781441135568/