“The Riddle We Can Guess”: On Clarity and Ambiguity in Writing

“The riddle we can guess / We speedily despise.” —Emily Dickinson, #1222

I was lying in the backseat of the car on an early October day in 2014, waiting while my mom grabbed a few things from the grocery store. It was probably very hot, as Tennessee autumns tend to be, but all I can recall about that moment was the book, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and the words that swarmed my head in a muggy cloud, fogging up the windows. I’d never read a book with so little regard for grammar, yet such a powerful ability to convey meaning beyond structure: only if you let Faulkner sweep you up would you get the real meaning of the story, the worlds between the words. If you slowed down to make logical sense of each line, the meaning was lost.

Ambiguity in writing is what makes a simple story beautiful. It is the crux of what is meant when we say, “show, don’t tell,” and it took the messy lives of three siblings and created a sort of poetry out of them, a melody that is as beautiful as it is painful. Using word association and stream-of-consciousness, The Sound and the Fury evokes great emotion in the reader, without telling her, “Look, this is sad. Look, the purity of Southern America is lost.” Instead, the reader feels that deep sense of loss when she reads, “I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire … I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”

Emily Dickinson’s poem #1222 alludes to this: a riddle we can guess is speedily despised because what we have understood seems quite simple to us, and there is nothing very exciting or thought-provoking or beautiful about what seems obvious. Perhaps it is not simple, but if the writer has written it in a clear enough manner, it seems simple, basic even, and so we dismiss it. By the same token, I have little interest in modern Christian music, not because I am not a Christian, but because there is little or no subtlety in most of it. Art is to make a person feel something, but not the kind of something you feel when you’ve been hit over the head with “The Point.”

Several years ago, I heard good writing described as a window: transparent, so that the reader sees the story, rather than getting caught up in the words. It’s stuck with me still.

There is much to be said for simplicity, for transparency, for letting the reader see what you’re doing, and not trying to get fancy with tricks, or sleights-of-hand. With journalism especially, the necessity of delivering un-muddled facts is paramount. The riddle must be guessable, or else the reader has not learned or understood anything. If she leaves the piece more confused, you have failed your job. Overly ambiguous writing causes obvious problems as well, whether it comes from academics who persistently use obsequious verbiage for the sake of sounding intellectual, or from journalists who, when reporting on subjects they do not understand, clutter their writing with jargon instead of making the subject understandable. Clarity is important, and perhaps the most important task of the writer. What use are words if you do not understand the idea they were meant to convey?

But perhaps clarity and ambiguity do not have to be opposed. If the purpose of writing is to translate a difficult issue, to make it universally understandable, then the question becomes, what is it that must be conveyed?

In the case of Faulkner, clarity seems lost, but looking at The Sound and the Fury in terms of purpose, perhaps it is not really lost at all. Ironically, the ambiguity makes the story more clear. Faulkner illustrates the image of family destruction more potently through his strings of repeated words and broken phrases, his lack of punctuation, and the Compson kids’ disordered thought-clusters, than he could through any direct statement. (If you need proof, consider the phrase, “the image of family destruction” itself: it is a pretty cheap assessment of the deep pain that novel depicts, is it not?)

For the journalist, a riddle of a phrase would leave readers more confused than when they began the article. Though subtlety is sometimes necessary, it can dangerously obscure the truth.

The “riddle” of the facts detailed in the journalist’s story, then, should be easily discernible—but the method does not have to be. If the writing is clunky, it obscures the purpose: we can only see the awkward sentence structure or poor grammar. But if the writing is transparent, the facts become clear—the story becomes clear—and the goodness of the writing itself dissolves into ambiguity. We can’t put our finger on why it is good, but we know it is.

Ambiguity can make a complex idea intelligible. Ambiguity can also muddle the meaning of the words. If the purpose of writing is to portray an idea—which I believe it is—then the vehicle used should fit the idea being translated. The difference is nuanced.

Carmel Kookogey is a sophomore studying politics and journalism.

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