My dad was a great appreciator of what he called the elegant question. As a bench scientist, his work moved forward if he asked the right questions, and then tested his hypotheses in a precise and linear fashion. He was very interested in how correlation could shift to causation–how do you prove that light alters flavor compounds in milk, when it might be time making the difference, the nature of the container, exposure to air…?
I am not the scientist my father was (see: flunked calculus twice), but I have come to appreciate the right question at the right time. Early in my writing career, I realized that most editors, though well intended, had seldom actually written a novel. Madam Editor might have a wonderful idea behind her voluminous suggested revisions, but if I didn’t grasp exactly what she was getting at, I’d be playing whack-a-mole. Make the hero more engaging, and his character arc flattens. Give the heroine more agency in the manner preferred by the editor, and she becomes not-credible for the time period.
And so on, for four rounds of revision that put the book right back where it was, while making roadkill of the author’s joie de plume.
So I learned to ask, particularly about revisions I didn’t agree with, “What is the problem we are trying to solve by making this change?” The answer was usually a few seconds of dead silence, and then either something constructive, or proof that my editor was off on some “heard it in a conference” tangent having nothing to do with the story I’d written.
I came across an even more powerful question in discussions with a younger friend whose spouse of ten years had developed a serious mental illness, and persisted in refusing treatment. Though the spouse was never violent, her affliction parted her from reality and in ways that made living with her unsafe. Spousal loyalty, honor, tenacity… many factors weighed against a divorce for my friend. He eventually stumbled onto this question: What would the woman I married, the wonderful lady of whom I thought the world, tell me to do?
That wonderful lady, who had once upon a time loved truly and with her whole heart, would have counseled divorce. She would have wanted her husband to be safe and happy and away from the relentless despair and drama.
The bumper sticker questions might work for a lot of people: What would Jesus/Buddha/the Prophet do? Are you living your best life? James Clear’s newsletter always includes a question along the lines of: What’s one thing you can do today to make future you happier? A riding friend once told me that with financial matters, he always tried to wait 24 hours before making a decision, and if the situation did not allow him 24 hours, that in itself gave him reason to pause.
Sleuths in mystery novels (waves to Lord Julian) are always supposed to ask: Who benefits from the commission of this crime? And when they answer that question correctly, they can often ditch some red herrings and false clues.
In a world of 24-7 click bait news cycles, endless intrusive tech, and non-stop natural disasters, the breathing room to ask a good, timely question and wait for an authentic answer is hard to come by, but–I believe–of greater benefit than ever.
What’s a question that has stood you in good stead? One you might turn to without even realizing you go there instinctively?
Speaking of Lord Julian… his debut whodunit launched on Tuesday. One reader told me that her day was complete when she got an email: A Gentleman Fallen on Hard Times is ready to be picked up! (Don’t tell Hyperia.)