When my daughter was four, we took her to Disney on Ice. As princesses and pirates and heroines and villains swished and pirouetted and twirled, her little face was a study in concentration. At one point, Donald Duck was put into an enchanted sleep by an evil queen. All the children around us oooohed and aaaahed and clapped as the storyline moved on. All except my child, who, eyebrows knitted together, tugged my sleeve and asked in a stern voice: “Yes, but Mummy, why was Donald in bed with his hat on?”
Ah, my little questioner. She has never been content with a pat answer, or with being fobbed off. At parent-teacher interviews we repeatedly hear that she is tenacious, and won’t stop asking questions until she is fully satisfied that she understands. Thankfully, this is perceived as a good thing. She’ll go far, they say. She refuses to just accept things. “Facts” must stand up to her intense scrutiny before she can integrate and make use of them.
Good God, it drives me nuts. And, it makes me proud.
There is much that we, as writers, can take from her attitude. As an editor, I often return manuscripts to my clients covered in red pen questions: Why does she say this? Why does she address only this character and not that character? Why does she do this? What has motivated him? Why is he now on the other side of the room, when two sentences back you said he was sitting down? Why did you choose this word and not a simpler one? Why have you used two adverbs describing her walk when one, more muscular verb, would have been more powerful? Why have you taken a paragraph to tell us that he is angry, instead of showing us his anger in action?
Good God, I bet it drives my clients nuts. But, more often than not, when I sign off on a project, the client will tell me how much they have learnt and how much my questioning and challenging has helped them become better writers.
And you don’t have to wait for an editor to hold you to account. You can learn to challenge yourself. You can start small. Why have I chosen that adjective? Is this the most appropriate, most powerful verb? Is that image a cliché? Have I punctuated dialogue correctly? And then you can widen your vision: Is this paragraph needed in its entirety? Can I cut extraneous words? Am I showing more than telling? Is all this exposition needed right here? And then even wider: Have I managed, in this work, to tell the story I actually wanted to tell? Is my setting powerful? Is the dialogue well-paced and structured? Have I answered all the questions I posed at the start? If not, why not?
Before I finish, let me segue into talking briefly about questioning in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here in New Zealand we’re stuck in a tight lockdown because the Delta strain has crept into the community again. With just one case detected earlier this month, our Prime Minister locked the whole nation down hard, and two weeks in, it’s working. Numbers are falling. We’re getting there. It’s damn hard, but it’s necessary.
As it has across the globe, social media has gone into overdrive, with (mostly) supremely unqualified people complaining, speculating, wondering, debating, and questioning our government’s response at every step.
And then there’s a certain faction who believe that even their right to question is being denied by the “leftie extremists”/ sheeple/capitalist dictators/[insert name of anyone they don’t like].
Here’s the thing they don’t quite understand: Most of us “leftie extremists” (yep, it me) believe that questioning is essential. You’d be mad not to explore, and use your brain, and challenge, and wonder, and disagree with things. I myself have closely scrutinised and questioned the government’s actions and decisions from day one of the pandemic. That’s healthy. (I just tend to reserve my opinions and thoughts until I have worked them through to a clear stance, to which I can speak with clarity.) I also long for a more competent opposition, who might do a better job holding the current government to account, but that seems unlikely, unfortunately.
What many of us won’t put up with anymore, though, is the spread of misinformation (proven by scientists and other experts to be so), knee-jerk reactions, seemingly harmless “musings” that are, quite frankly, inviting less resilient/discerning people to become anxious and vulnerable to falling down conspiracy rabbit holes, all masquerading as “questioning.”
We have a responsibility to ourselves to question and ponder and not swallow anything whole. We also have a responsibility to think before opening our mouths/posting online/pressing the Share button, for the sake of others.
We could take a leaf out of my daughter’s book and ask, reasonably, why Donald was still wearing his hat in bed. Or we could aggressively and indiscriminately vomit our personal fears and uninformed interrogations about ice-skating Disney characters into the interwebs, post questions about conspiracy theories (preceded by the line “I’m not normally a conspiracy theorist BUT”) about Goofy and 5-G and Snow White POSSIBLY – I don’t know, don’t quote me on this, I read it on some FB post – but POSSIBLY being the Antichrist, and huff and puff about people even having to wear hats and what that means for “MaH FrEeDoMs”.
Choose wisely. Question wisely.