Leaning into Mystery
It has been cool here this last week as the seasons begin to shift. Sometimes it feels as though Fall might not ever come, the heat wearing on and on, but for now, she’s here, and I am happy to see her. Hope she has found you as well.
I’ve been reading The Art of Mystery by Maud Casey. It’s part of Graywolf’s Art of Series, which are great little studies of different writerly concerns. If I’m honest, I thought the book was going to focus on suspense (as in a Who-Done-It type of mystery) but that’s not what Casey is concerned with. She’s focused on mystery as an unknowable force (as in the Great Mysteries of Life) and how we should examine them in our writing. So, let’s do that.
Casey’s main points pair well with Hawthorne’s Wakefield, a short four page story that feels more contemporary than his other work. (Given the movie treatment not too long ago with Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Garner.) Give it a read and then we’ll look at the mystery of Wakefield.
Before we look at Wakefield, let me summarize a couple of Casey’s points about mystery. She points out that it’s human nature to want to believe in things we can’t explain and the reason we turn to fiction is not to find facts but for the experience of being moved, to marvel. This, I think, explains some of my frustration with some books of late. There’s no room for mystery because there’s too much focus on the world and all of its cynicism. To add more mystery, Casey suggests we lean into uncertainty, unknowable, the wonderment of the world.
One way to achieve this, is through a lack of specificity. (Consider how fairy tales never explain the how or why of a magical element. The mystery of it just is.) So, too with Wakefield.
In some old magazine or newspaper, I recollect a story, told as truth, of a man—let us call him Wakefield—who absented himself for a long time, from his wife.
The narrator does not know Wakefield. That’s not even his name. The entire story is one of speculation. Further, it doesn’t even matter if we agree on who Wakefield was:
What sort of man was Wakefield? We are free to shape out our own idea, and call it by his name.
The narrator is at once horrified by what Wakefield has done, declaring: none of us would perpetrate such a folly and then in the next sentence admitting, well, yes, he has actually contemplated walking out of his life too but doesn’t have the “character” of Wakefield.
In order to maintain mystery, we need to constantly ask the questions though we need not find the answers. Simply asking questions is enough.
Another way that Casey suggests we can build mystery is by giving our characters secrets. Sometimes these secrets never arrive on the page.
Wakefield is a man of secrets. Why does he disappear from his life? What did he think would happen? How long has he been plotting such a thing? We shall never know.
What we do know, or are led to assume, is that life goes on without Wakefield. He seems unsettled by this. One of the undercurrents of the story lies in the cruelty of Wakefield’s actions when it pertains to his wife. We know she imagines Wakefield has died and becomes ill. And yet he is without empathy, going to his house each day to watch his wife carry on without him. Who does that?
Casey’s bag of tricks for mystery includes ghost stories and the uncanny, but Hawthorne shows us that there is plenty of space for mystery within realism. There is the faint smile that Mrs. Wakefield believes she sees when she shuts the door, a passing image, but the memory of which recurrs to her often enough that she begins to question whether she’s a widow or not.
In her many musings, she surrounds the original smile with a multitude of fantasies, which make it strange and awful.
And there is a chance meeting on the street where they gaze into each other’s eyes and are kept apart by the crowd. After that one moment
All the miserable strangeness of his life is revealed to him at a glance.
Because it is a Hawthorne story, there has to be some moral that the narrator can pass along to make everyone feel a bit better about their mundane lives:
He would look on the affair as no more than an interlude in the main business of his life. When, after a litle while more, he should deem it time to re-enter his parlor, his wife would clap her hands for joy, on beholding the middle-aged Mr. Wakefield. Alas, what a mistake! Would Time but await the close of our favorite follies, we should be young men, all of us, and till Doom’s Day.
Turns out, this is great writing advice. We wait and wait, convincing ourselves that the timing isn’t right for various and asundry things and time does not wait for us.
Unlike the narrator of Wakefield, I think a lot of people dream about disappearing from their lives. Write into that desire to fade away from responsibilities. Where would your character go? What would they do? What of their past life would they miss?
Or. Write a story that comes across as gossip. The narrator is telling a tale that they heard from someone else. How might you make use of this distance? That is, how does the narrator twist the storytelling for their own purposes?
Revision. Is there enough mystery in your work? How might you add some? Considre: what do your characters stand in awe of? What was their first experience with wonder? How has it shaped them? How might they return to it if they’ve lost their connection to it?
Essayists! I often wonder if my musings are useful to you at all. I’ve finally found a great source for you. Cassie Mannes Murray has begun a newsletter called Essay Atlas wherein she maps the structure of essays in detail.
Are you out on submission? Hope to be one day? Here’s a great list of questions to ask an agent when you find yourself on The Call.
Hub City Press is open for unagented Novels until September 30th. Authors need to be Southern-ish. They’ll open for Nonfiction in October.
Okay scribblers. Lets get our eyes and pencils focused on examining mystery. Or that “inchoate reaching in heartfelt darkness,” as Casey’s mother the writer Jane Barnes refers to it. Until next time~