I just returned from two days spent at the Ohio University Literary Festival, where lectures were delivered by writers Amy Hempel (if you don’t know her story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” read it without passing Go), Richard Rodriguez (whom I will stalk in print for the rest of my days), and 2010 NBA award winning poet, Terrance Hayes. It was Hayes who brought up the topic I’m thinking about this morning; specifically, the difference between the terms in the title. Until the conference, I wasn’t making distinctions between these terms. To be honest, I didn’t think about them in the same sentence.
Terrance Hayes changed that.
Ambiguity is a lack of clarity that results in a question being unanswerable because the question itself is not clear. Ambiguity, in writing, is a flaw.
Complexity is the result of the intersection of two disparate emotions or ideas. It results from the character who acts against his own priorities and values, because, well, we all have internal conflicts that don’t make logical sense. My March 20 post on internal conflict elaborates on this topic. Complexity, in writing, is necessary.
Mystery is the result of a clearly stated question that has no definitive answer. It opens the work to the larger questions like, what makes life meaningful? or how is justice served? It enlarges what it touches by exposing the gray edges of certainty. It is what I, as a writer, mean to poke in my work in such a way that the reader enters a larger sphere of questions than the ones s/he is already asking.
Clarify ambiguity, develop complexity, embrace mystery.