The Wisdom Trap
Why trying to be "insightful" in your essays does not always lead to insight.
This past fall, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by the author Deborah Levy at the American Library in Paris. Levy, an award-winning South African–British novelist and playwright, has written a trilogy of essayistic, memoir-adjacent works she calls “living autobiography.” I very much enjoyed the conversation, but was especially struck by Levy's somewhat unorthodox approach to personal writing.
She said her books The Cost of Living, Things I Don’t Want to Know, and Real Estate were created “more or less in the storm of life.” They were written in the middle of the action, as it was happening, rather than from a place of looking back, over her shoulder, from some distant and all-knowing vantage point where the past had already passed. She remarked that wisdom, such as it is, did not really interest her. “Wisdom is so boring,” she said, “so I didn’t really want to do that.”
Wisdom is so boring. It’s a shocking thing to say, especially for someone in the habit of reading and writing a lot of personal essays, for which wisdom is often assumed to be the ultimate end goal, but I understood right away what she was getting at.
On the face of it, that sentiment may sound completely counterintuitive to what we so often assume about nonfiction. How can wisdom be boring? Isn’t nonfiction writing supposed to be about the pursuit of knowledge and insight, with the writer striving to impart wisdom to the reader? With personal essays and memoir in particular, we often assume that the whole point of writing about something true, something that really happened, is to let the reader know what we have learned. When many of us sit down to write about ourselves or the things we have experienced, we want to tell everyone that we’ve grown, that we know better, and that we have it all figured out now. There is a narrative in our minds that we wish to impose. And yet, as Levy suggests, this may not always be the best place from which to begin.
“Wisdom is so boring,” she said, “so I didn’t really want to do that.”
When we start from a place where our primary goal is to be wise or insightful, before actually embarking on the difficult process of discovery through writing, we will not usually arrive at a place of real wisdom. To do this, whether through arrogance or ignorance, is to try and cheat the genuine work of creative excavation. More often than not, this path leads not to insight but to cliché.
In speaking with students about this all-too-common writing pitfall, I have come to call it “The Wisdom Trap.” It’s important to understand what it is, why it happens, and most of all how best to avoid it.
First, let’s talk a little bit about clichés, what they are, and what they do. The word “cliché” comes from the French term for the process of creating a “stereotype.” Before its modern usage, this referred to the metal plates used on a printing press in the 18th century to duplicate typography or images. A cliché is therefore something unoriginal. It is mass-produced, off-the-shelf. It becomes ubiquitous to the point of meaninglessness and invisibility. It is, at its core, a lie.
When I talk about clichés in writing, I don’t just mean that a writer has used a too-common descriptor or presented an unoriginal scenario. There is an important distinction to be made between clichés and tropes, and besides, not all language needs to stand out. Striving for “originality” above all else can be it’s own kind of trap. But this is not to say that a routine use of clichés is harmless. Rather, when a writer resorts to clichés, he or she has, on some fundamental level, not told the truth.
In her essay “Fail Better,” Zadie Smith unpacks this very concept:
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