Dante’s often-quoted beginning of the Divine Comedy has the narrator arriving at a dark wood, unsure of which way to turn. To many writers and artists, Dante’s predicament is a familiar, disquieting, and essential starting place. Leonard Cohen wrote, “I write to reveal not what I know, but what I don’t know.” And of an artist’s profession in general he said, You’re married to a mystery. It’s not a particularly generous mystery…” In other words, a writer has to enter into the dark, the unknown, to see if their path leads to art.

Echoing this sentiment, Anne Truitt, in her memoir, Daybook: The Journal of an Artist, writes, “Preconception is fatal.” Pre-planning, to Truitt, is actively antagonistic, a death blow to creation. Preconception makes a still-birth of art. For creative nonfiction writers, also, the unknown, the unplanned, the attention to pure presence, invites life, fear, vulnerability, wonder, and the fullness of conflicting emotions into our work.

Poet and memoirist Mark Doty reminds us that the world, and ourselves, are not fixed, not mutable. As the world is “endless, relentless, fascinating, exhaustive” and “always hurrying into some other form,” so are we; and a central part of our job as memoirist and essayist is to catch and form these flickering changes. In James Baldwin’s essay, “Notes of a Native Son,” he renders the following kaleidoscopic moment of unfolding, of phenomenological and shifting emotions, just before and during his last visit to his father in hospital:

The moment I saw him, I knew why I had put off this visit so long. I had told my mother that I did not want to see him because I hated him. But this was not true. It was only that I had hated him, and I wanted to hold on to this hatred. I did not want to look at him as a ruin. It was not a ruin I had hated. I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hatred so stubbornly is because they sense once hate is gone that they will be forced to deal with pain.

In this wrenchingly honest paragraph, Baldwin reveals four changing moments of truth in a very short period of time (see my italics): “I hated my father(a previous, concrete state of being); then, “I had hated him and I wanted to hold on to this hatred” (a longstanding identity being questioned); then, “I did not want to look at him as a ruin. It was not a ruin I had hated,” (a change in knowing that this very sick figure is a different man to him—a man who might break his heart in his vulnerability); and then, finally, the move to the universal notion that we cling to hatred to protect ourselves from pain. (This letting go being another fear of the unknown.)

How did Baldwin attend to these quickly changing parts of himself? How do we stay in the unknown and changing sense of our world and our relationships—­and render them into art? John Keats, in an 1814 letter, suggests an idea about Baldwin’s quality of being, and tolerance of the unknown: “Negative Capability,” Keats wrote, “…is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Hate and the many deep caverns and histories of hurt and pain and joy within our relationships, which form the emotional core of much creative nonfiction and all memoir, are not found in “fact and reason” but in tolerating our complexities and vastness, and keeping our eyes open in the strange, often painful darkness, until a feeling or an awareness burns or sickens, lifts in joy or love, or arrives in some sensory flush to our bodies.

Following are ideas from talks by writers over the past few years and from my experience, for how to keep our eyes open in the darkness of our writing process:

  • From my journal last year: “If you write a line that feels tinny or insincere, cross it out, and wait. The well is never dry.” Or, as Ursula K. Le Guin was quoted at a Vermont College of Fine Arts Residency, “Know when you are fooling yourself. You must tell the truth to you. The truth comes about by telling it.”
  • After I attended memoirist and craft writer Sue William Silverman’s talk on the memory and the senses (VCFA Residency, 2021), I noted the following translation of her ideas as: “Always seek the senses; be guided by body sensations and the alchemy of inner waves as doors to memory.”
  • Get away from our desks, sometimes. Wander—emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Bret Lott noted that he wrote an entire work outside of his house, because that was what the work demanded. Similarly, in Rebecca Solnit’s essay on Virginia Woolf, Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable, Solnit recounts Woolf’s early evening walks as invitations to “darkness, wandering, invention, the annihilation of identity, the enormous adventure that transpires in the mind while the body travels a quotidian course.” Woolf herself writes in her early essay “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” that as we wander into the twilight of early evening in a city, “We are no longer quite ourselves.”

Returning to the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the traveler on his unmarked path mirrors the writer’s trek into the mystery of source material for essay and memoir writing. Our pen becomes the narrator—lost, looking into the darkness, unsure where to go next, poised toward the unknown—and the blank page, the forest.


Degan Davis lives in Toronto and published his first collection of poetry, What Kind of Man Are You, in 2018 (Brick Books). Degan has just begun an MFA in creative nonfiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and his poetry and nonfiction have appeared in The Globe and Mail, Descant, The New Quarterly, Riddle Fence and The Malahat Review.