Learning to Ask Enlightening Questions

Have I not told myself things through writing I hadn’t thought of before? Hadn’t I told myself I could find my way through the Caverns without a candle?

-The Folk Keeper, Franny Billingsley

 

When I was writing my senior undergraduate thesis, my advisor, and my best friend who had graduated the year before, regularly reminded me to keep my eyes trained on my central question (“How has Ukrainian national identity formation affected or been effected by Ukrainian Russian relations since 1991?” Yes. Yes, it is timely to current events, both then and now).

The thesis was a whomper of a thesis at 93 pages and covering everything from creation of national identity, Ukrainian-Russian economic relations, and the triangle of Ukraine-Russia-NATO/EU. It would have been easy to get lost, but instead I found the process of writing the thesis remarkably peaceful, enjoyable, and intellectually invigorating.

Not unlike this last rewrite/revision of magicballoonbook.

What changed from the first draft of magicballoonbook to the second?

That. That changed.

I’m learning to ask questions. To know what questions to ask a story, its setting, and its characters before I begin. When I have the questions of the story, then I have a clear focus. Those questions become the lantern in the darkness that is writing a book. Writing a book can be a lot like climbing into a very dark cave, not knowing what’s on the other side. Even with an outline, that’s really only the railing.

But those questions. Those questions form a lantern you use to illuminate the tunnel. Those questions are how you discover the stairs going down, the different paths through the dark tunnel, and how you make those choices. Where to go. Those questions become lifesavers.

Don’t lose track of your questions. When I was in Ukraine, we visited a cave system in Western Ukraine where people had hid from the Nazis and other invaders over the centuries. It was one of the longest tunnel systems in the world. I’m afraid of the dark and of being in caves, but the dark is really absolutely terrifying to me. We were walking through the tunnels, downhill, on slippery rock, listening to our professor translate the tour guide’s stories, when the cave lost power. The tiny lights that had been guiding us turned off.

I nearly peed myself and I nearly hit the ground. I panicked so instantaneously I didn’t even make a sound. I just started sinking toward the ground. My professor (one of my favorite professors ever, and I am fond of most of the teachers in my life) caught me by my arm. (There’s probably nothing more panic inducing than getting grabbed in absolute pitch black, but I was already so far over the edge I couldn’t freak out anymore).

He said, “Stay standing, stay still.”

And then the lights came back on.

Writing’s a lot like that. If you lose track of the questions guiding you through writing, then it doesn’t do you much good to fumble around hopefully. Step back. Stay still. Remember how to breathe. Remember you’re not the only one in this very long dark cave. The questions will come back to you and then you can write on.

The questions I asked myself in magicballoonbook: What does forgiveness look like on an individual and international level? How does the collective memory of horrors (like the Holocaust) play out in individuals? If Time wasn’t a factor, how would the way we looked at our present tense lives change?

 

As I write this, the elderly gentleman next to me at B&N sat down with the book: HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN? Explaining the Holocaust by Dan McMillan.

Some questions we will always ask.

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