Friday, March 25, 2011


I've written a piece on Doubt for anyone who's interested. It's based on earlier thoughts I've described here, a tad more 'academic' but hopefully still readable.

The MC journal is also worth checking out.


Elizabeth said...

I can't wait to read it and am headed over shortly.

Leslie Morgan said...

Congratulations, Lis, and well deserved! You amaze me as I watch you hone your skill so sharply and quickly.

It pleased me to see you'd signed on as a Follower over at my friend Doozyanner's (I've Been Thinking About . . . ). She is lovely, as are you. You'll be a good match.

Rob-bear said...

Cannot connect to your "Doubt" piece. There seems to be a problem with the link. Sigh!

When I can finally get to it, I doubt that I'll be disappointed.

Anonymous said...

Just to confirm what Rob-bear has said, the link isn't working.

Jim Murdoch said...

@Rob-bear - I think this is it.

Penal-Colony said...

Got it through the 2nd link. Fascinating work. I love how you weave your own story into the academic essay. Well worth the read.

Thank You,


Elisabeth said...

Hi all

Sorry for the dodgy link. Jim has it two comments above, or try

I'm flat chat today but should be able to respond tomorrow.

Jim Murdoch said...

There were a couple of phrases here that reminded me of Murnane, firstly, “I follow the associations that erupt in my mind” and, secondly, “t takes many drafts before a pattern can emerge.” You talk of what results as a “structure” whereas he would talk about a landscape but it’s much the same. His is probably better because a landscape in theory will go on forever but a structure has limits.

I don’t like the word ‘doubt’ probably because of its religious connotations in the same way I don’t like ‘inspiration’ or ‘muse’ because they mysticise the words. The opposite of certainty is simply uncertainty and the fact is that most things in this life are uncertain. We may assign certainty to some things in just the same way we have faith in some things or believe some things but so matter how convinced we are that things are so it doesn’t make them so. Faith has as much to do with simple probability as anything else. I once went to collect my sister from her flat and when I got the she was standing outside waiting for me a minute before the appointed time and I said to her, “What if I was late,” to which she replied, “Jimmy, you’re never late.” On the whole she’s right but I have been late although I can actually only think of a single instance in my adult life and that was down to buses not turning up. Had the one I expected to connect with arrived on time I would have been an hour early. My sister’s faith in me was based on years of experience but she could still not be certain that I would arrive on time.

I’m far more comfortable these days with uncertainty than I used to be. I used to apply Newton’s Third Law to life: everything was a reaction to (or consequence of) a prior action going right back to creation or the big bang depending on what you chose to believe. And, of course, if you can draw a line back then you can predict where that line will go in the future as long as you know all the variables. That is simplistic because we either don’t know and/or can’t measure accurately all the variables. Quantum mechanics now incorporates something called an uncertainty principle. Heisenberg, its discoverer, translated into English from a variety of original German terms. He originally called the concept Ungenauigkeit (inexactness) or Unbestimmtheit (underminedness), whereas his mentor and collaborator Niels Bohr often used Unsicherheit (unsureness). All very unscientific terms. Today in German the most commonly used term for the principle is Unschärfe (blurredness or fuzziness) and it was learning about fuzzy logic that helped me come to terms with the fact that we cannot be certain about anything. We can approach certainty but we are incapable of achieving it.

You are right when you talk about degrees: whether we’re talking about certainty or doubt having too much of either can be debilitating. The thing about the imagination though is that it doesn’t matter how certain something is we can still picture things differently. You may not have doubted something before but it takes very little for doubt to take root. It’s assuming that what we don’t know is bad that makes doubt potentially harmful. How often do we doubt a criminal and wonder why he did what he did? No, he’s a bad man. Bad men do bad things. It’s as simple as that.

Doubt can hurt creativity because who is to say that what we decide to commit to paper is accurate? If we are certain of our facts/beliefs then we can write freely but if we’re not sure then it’s tempting to pull our punches. Yes, we can state the bare facts but without context or motive they can be more misleading than actually helpful. Our readers are our judge and jury. A writer can’t ever forget his has accessories after the fact.

There is, to my mind, a direct correlation between the power doubt can have and the trust we have in a person. If we trust a person then we can entertain doubt and it not have a permanent effect on us. The less we trust to start off with the greater the danger than the giving in to doubt will do lasting damage.

Claire Beynon said...

A fascinating and satisfying essay, Elisabeth - as John has said, the way you weave your personal story - your quest for deeper understanding - into an academic framework is admirable. This makes theory, surmise and personal reality equally accessible; left and right brain appreciate this! Thanks - Claire.

PS. Wonder and doubt seem to me to fit comfortably in the same sentence. . .

R. J. said...

Congrats! You've won an award at

Gisizee said...

Great piece, E, solid writing and much food for thought - thanks for the link!

Pam Morrison said...

Fascinating! It strikes me that there are as many truths in what is known as there are in what is not known.. I've enjoyed the invitation your writing brings to give as much honour and weight to the space between as to the substance. I'll be reading this again. Thanks for giving the link. Pam

Elisabeth said...

I hope if you tried to open the link, Elizabeth, you managed it.

Otherwise as I've said elsewhere you can try:

Thanks for giving it a go, Elizabeth.

Elisabeth said...

You're too kind, Leslie and I'm very pleased I visited Doozeyanner's blog.

It's always enjoyable to meet such interesting bloggers.

Thanks, Leslie.

Elisabeth said...

Ah Rob-bear I hope you eventually managed to open the link. Jim has it one below, or try:

Thanks, Rob-Bear.

Elisabeth said...

Jane, I hope you too managed to get past my faulty link, but in any case thanks for alerting me to it.

Elisabeth said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the essay, John. I enjoy weaving the autobiographical with the theoretical but only when it's understandable. I can't stomach dense theory, however valuable it might be.

Thanks, John.

Elisabeth said...

I suppose in many ways certainty is like the notion of truth, Jim. It's something you might aspire to but if you think you have it you're in trouble.

I think it's important to be able to have a degree of predictability in one's life - a bit like your sister's expectation that you would not be late - as long as it accompanies a tolerance for the unexpected.

Too much predictability, too much certainty is dangerous. We can't rely on anything, including each other but as you can say we can trust on the basis of past experience that we will do the right thing by one another, but of course again there are no guarantees.

I'm not sure of the notion that a person who does bad things is simply bad. Badness like goodness is broad and variable, and equally hard to define.

We all sometimes do bad things and vice versa, bad things are done to us. I also think human beings are complex beings. I doubt that any of us are all one way or the other. Even psychopaths might have some small seed of goodness within. And even saints can be sinners.

I'm flattered by the association to Gerald Murnane. I can only say that he has influenced my writing a great deal and in more ways than one.

Thanks, Jim.

Elisabeth said...

I agree with the idea that wonder and doubt sit closely together, Claire, though I suspect the word wonder will seem more acceptable. Many people are terrified of uncertainty. They cannot tolerate it one bit.

Thanks, Claire.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for the kind words, Two Tigers.

Elisabeth said...

I'm gad you found it useful, Pam. I'm all for levity but occasionally I like a touch of substance. Thanks.

Rosaria Williams said...

Ah, how intriguing and illuminating the article you wrote on Doubt. It explains why I'm drawn to memoir writing, to the times in my life that have left me uncertain and disturbed. This is a wonderful piece of scholarship Elizabeth. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Jim Murdoch said...

I was actually being flippant when I wrote that bad men do bad things. I think of myself as essentially a good man and yet I've also done bad things. What I was talking about was our willingness to doubt. Dad's got a secret. "Oh, he must have done something bad." As soon as there's room for doubt we're more prone to jump on the negative than the positive. "He must be having an affair." It happens in sitcoms all the time, people jumping to the wrong conclusions.

Elisabeth said...

I can understand your being drawn to memoir, Rosaria, both the writing of it and the reading.

Memoir creates so many doubts and yet it has a certain legitimacy. It's experience based: art following life as they say, and not the other way around.

Thanks, Rosaria.

Elisabeth said...

Sorry Jim. the hazads of life online. How not to take things too literally. i did not detect yyour tongue in your cheek, otherwise i would not have mentioned my disagreement. I now understand what you mean and I agree.

We tend to experience uncomfortable doubt in the face of our prejudices while simultaneously our prejudices on the other hand encourage a certain false certainty, as you say. 'He did something wrong therefore he must be bad.'

Thanks for clarifying, Jim.

Ruth said...

It's a wonderful article, Elisabeth. I was glad especially to read about your own writing process.

I appreciate this quote: We recognise ourselves in another’s memoir, however fleetingly, and the recognition makes our “own experience feel more meaningful: not ‘merely’ personal but part of the bigger picture of cultural memory”

In your writing, as you allow connections to surface and make a structure, I follow you and connect.

What is it about photographs that makes us think we understand? Your mother is glad for the photo of her dead daughter, something to have of her. Photos are odd this way, I think. They are the person, and not. We think we know, understand. What they lead to is something in ourselves, I suppose, that we discover. That is memoir, sometimes imagined, which is what I am having to build from my own history, because I know little of the "facts."

Excellent stuff. Thank you for sharing the article.

Pearl said...

Thank you -- I'll go take a look!


Lisa said...

Elisabeth, really, only you could bring such topics and create interest and provoke thinking.

I can't think of specific doubts I have experience in my life but I did wonder where did my husband go when he was just there with me a time ago.

Frances said...

Most interesting, as usual, Elisabeth: and among what interests me is why you refer to your dead oldest sister as your "dead baby sister"? Of course, there is another sister who now has the title of "oldest sister", and I understand that the little one who left so soon had a profound effect on her life, as the "oldest girl" role devolved to her.I wonder what slighter, unseen effects her death had on the rest of you?
To lose a first child must be a profound experience. Does your mother think of you as "Seventh in Line?" Has your mother rationalised her grief over the years? (Some would not find her reasoning re memories very convinving). Is it possible that at such a harsh time there might have been a slight guilty relief mixed with grief in losing the responsibility of a baby? Did this first experience contribute to her determination to have babies, and so influence your whole family history?
Did these few weeks or months of life in fact shape the future and so many lives?
Of course, that is just wild fantasy and speculation. Your posts are thought provoking.

Elisabeth said...

I'm not big on structure, Ruth, in fact it's the thing I find most difficult. I like to plunge in and play around with ideas and often Ilose the initial connections and the big picture, which doesn't bother me much but it bothers others.

So I have to work hard to tie things together and I don't always succeed especially in my blog where there is so much more freedom to forget about structure almost altogether.

Thanks, Ruth.

Elisabeth said...

I hope you find the essay useful, Pearl, if you get a chance to get back and take a look. Thanks.

Elisabeth said...

Oh dear Lisa, you really must wonder sometimes where your husband disappeared to. It's sad to think he disappeared in the first place.

Thanks, Ocean girl.

Elisabeth said...

I doubt that my mother thinks of any of us in terms of our chronological position in the family these days, Frances, except as the first, last and middle. With nine children, it must be hard to remember our exact locations in the chronology.

I think you may be right about the influence of this dead baby on my experience. I thought about her a lot when I was growing up, less so these days and these days too when my mother talks about her, when I ask, she can sometimes get very upset as if she's only now registering her pain.

During the war years it must have been hard to grieve when there was so much loss all around and when survival was at a premium.

Thanks, Frances.

Dave King said...

Sounds interesting, but I gather you have three/// in your link. I shall return. In the meanwhile: congrats!

Robert the Skeptic said...

I'm unable to link to your article, some error in the link to "doubt".

Elisabeth said...

If you can be bothered scrolling back through the comments to Jim's first comment, about fifth in line, Robert you might have luck in opening the link.

Jim's put it in there directly or cut and paste to try:

Thanks, Robert.

Elisabeth said...

There's really only one for me significant link, Dave. If you're interested, try:

Thanks, Dave

Antares Cryptos said...

Hi Elisabeth, very thought provoking article.

I've always thought of doubt and uncertainty as promoting creativity, although I am not using them interchangeably.

Pictures of those who have passed have always made me uncomfortable, objectifying the person that no longer is, but lingers behind in memory. A created memory that does not include who the person was, but what they might have been, which is not a true memory, if such a thing even exists.

Anonymous said...


Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Me. I'm grateful for your endorsement. Bravo bravo bravo for your blog. too. I've just been to visit and I'm in awe.

Anonymous said...

The Dude Abides.
Read 'Middlemarch' and George Eliot's biography:she teaches morality in authorship;which is difficult to replicate.The most treasured book in the English language.
Thanks for your comment.Just recovered from my wife's birthday.

Antares Cryptos said...

Hello? :)

Isabel Doyle said...

I finally worked out how to read your article on Doubt – sorry of my comment is a bit late. As I read, I wanted to have a conversation with you over so many of the points you raise – I would think if ever one was looking for inspiration for a writing topic, one could do a lot worse than read Doubt: family stories, family secrets, ghosts, how we think about dying, to name a few.

Your description of the photo of your dead baby sister reminded me of a colleague who lost a baby in childbirth, but who carried a photo of her infant in her wallet. The first time she showed it to me was only a few months after she had lost him and I was quite troubled by her grief, the photo and guilt at having healthy babies myself. I am intrigued that your mother (who also had lots of other dramas to occupy her at the time I would imagine) was able to manage her loss with less apparent devastation than did my friend: I wonder if this is because we have been taught to expect ‘successful’ childbirth, whereas our mothers were much more aware of the fragility of the whole situation? If you are interested, I wrote a poem about Carmel’s loss:

A very stimulating piece, thank you.

Elisabeth said...

Hi Antares, Sorry for my delayed response here.

I wonder about the notion of photographs of those who are now dead as objectifying them, though I understand that some cultures find them problematic.

I suppose the construction of a memory based on a photograph is just that: a construction, even more so than the original memory, which is also a construction.

There's evidence to suggest that people can create memories of things that did not happen as if they did happen on the basis of photographs.

Humans are very suggestive.

I suppose it's the basis of our imaginations and what would we do without them.

Thanks Antares.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Isabel, for this comment. I read your poem over at your blog and I'm grateful for the link.

As it is my mother lost three babies, one at five months, another still born, my mother's last baby when she was forty two, and the third a miscarriage at some thirteen fourteen fifteen weeks. I don't know how advanced but it seems it was maybe half way though gestation though not yet viable.

In any case I often felt that my mother compensated for her lost babies on the basis of her live ones, which is understandable I'm sure but equally disturbing for those left behind.

Thanks, Isabel.