“Try to See It My Way” (Writers and Negative Capability)

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“The wise man questions the wisdom of others because he questions his own, the foolish man, because it is different from his own.” —Leo Stein, American art collector and critic

In an 1817 letter to a friend, the poet John Keats describes one of the qualities that makes writers like Shakespeare so great: negative capability. Keats defines this trait as “…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In other words, this is the ability to sublimate one’s own individual assumptions about the world and write about uncertain (or potentially polarizing) topics in such a way that the author’s own views remain unknown. It is also the recognition that there are often grey areas in life which cannot be resolved through rational means. This requires an extraordinary degree of objectivity, and it’s much harder than it seems.

To enter into the mind of other people (or things) and speak from their point of view is an essential goal for writers, and certainly Keats demonstrates this skill in “Ode to a Nightingale,” “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and “Ode On a Grecian Urn.” Often some of the most engaging literary works are those where there is no clear side taken on contentious issues (such as the free will versus predestination dichotomy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex). But the question is, how can writers break free from their own personal perceptions and approach subjects from a more objective point of view? Consider these strategies:

1. Read writers who are good at negative capability. I’ve mentioned Keats, Shakespeare, and Sophocles. But there are plenty of other notable authors, such as Emily Dickenson, William Wordsworth, Anne Rice, Walt Whitman, and John Updike.

2. Learn to view situations from other people’s perspectives. Imagine not what you would do if you were facing their circumstances, but rather think about what they would do and why.

3. Step into the unknown. Force yourself to write about subjects or situations you are uncomfortable with (or know little about).

4. Write in a new genre. Tell a familiar tale in a different format. For example, if you normally write short stories, turn your narrative into a poem (or vice versa). Or you could try turning a poem into a screenplay (or vice versa). Different literary conventions require different sensibilities, and this can lead to breakthroughs in our perceptions of subjects.

One of the joys of reading is having the opportunity to experience situations from someone else’s perspective. To do this convincingly, writers must learn to put aside their own ideas about the world and imagine alternative possibilities. This is terra incognita for many people, but by embracing this approach, you may discover new avenues of creative potential.

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About Scott Shields

Years ago, I left the Midwest for the deserts of Arizona. Since then, I have worked in the grocery business and as a high school English teacher. Literature and writing are my passions, and I try to share my love of the written word with my students each day.


  1. The concept of negative capability seems tied to Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty. My non-scientifc view of the uncertainty principle is that anytime some event is observed, the results are skewed. It was meant to explain a phenomenon in scientific experiments in quantum physics. But, I see the parallel with negative capability – uncertainty trumps all our knowledge, and just asking the questions means we’ve skewed the results.

  2. I think in Hamlet, which I’, most familiar with of the works you mentioned, Shakespeare definitely has clear intentions and views that are expressed. It was Shakespeare’s clear intention to make various points about humanity and human nature. To choose that particular dichotomy, and not one of one hundred others represents a clear point of view, and a deliberate attempt to grasp at reason. Simply because he argues both sides doesn’t mean the author isn’t clearly represented in the debate.

    I think it’s impossible for an author to write without some intention – I agree that better writers are aware of their biases and only let them bleed into the story with forethought, but all writing is a kind of manipulation. Even surreal or nihilistic writing like Beckett’s Endgame or Waiting for Godot still had some set of underlying questions and issues the author was exploring, intentionally or not.