Argue in Your Head (and on the page): In Celebration of Molly Brodak

by | Mar 26, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

This Monday is the birthday of a dear friend of mine who died a little over a year ago, Molly Brodak, one of the greatest poets and writers of this generation. Underlying her greatness as a writer is, I believe, her greatness as a thinker. As an intellect, maybe even as a philosopher. In writing and in tweets and in conversation, Molly expressed sophisticated and original ideas with startling precision, (sometimes biting) humor, and enviable confidence. 

That’s not to say I always agreed with her. The most intransigent part of grief, for me, was–is–the urge to argue with her in my head, especially about atheism versus belief and about the ethics of having children. Her words often chastened me. I wanted to defend myself with the kind of systematic, unimpeachable reasoning with which she impeached religious belief and having (biological) kids. 

But I appreciate a worthy adversary, intellectually, much more than a lazy thinker who agrees with me. So with that in mind, as a tribute to Molly, here is the title poem of her posthumous book, “The Cipher,” which brilliantly delineates between nonbelievers and believers from the very first lines:

A nonbeliever accepts

a kind of fog around facts—

believers demand meaning.

Already, I protest: I believe (as a person of faith) that believing requires a fog around facts–a comfort with mystery and awe, whereas a nonbeliever demands certainty. 

But later in the poem, Molly lays waste to my protests:

And a nonbeliever accepts

that God is very, very likely.

Ugh! I have no good response to that. Which I find delightful. The poem even makes me wonder: am I, after all, a nonbeliever? Which is a question that my very faith demands that I consider seriously and often.

It’s as if Molly, in those startling lines, anticipated my objection and explained it away. It’s not about the presence of certainty, she says, for the non-believer; it’s about, simply, the absence of belief.

Of course, the most painful argument I have with Molly has to do with carrying on with life in this broken world. After her death, the poem that everybody kept sharing was, “In the Morning, Before Anything Bad Happens,” the third of these poems published by New York Tyrant (the other two are well worth reading also). 

This poem can’t be excerpted, but once again, and more troublingly,  it rocks the very core of me with its undeniable logic. I’m forced to wonder how many of my own days turn this way, after the brief joy of morning.  It’s tempting to find hope in this little poem, but sadly, that would be a misreading. 

But while there isn’t much hope in the meaning of the poem, I think there is hope in the greater project of Molly’s work: she kept writing to the end. She knew her ideas mattered, and so she put words to them and published them. She might have called herself a non-believer, but I believe she believed in poetry and in the power and necessity of good, clear thought. 

Prompt

This week, wrestle with ideas. Argue in your head and on the page. Think clearly. Here’s an exercise in good thinking that I give to my students when they write longform research papers. I require that they have an original idea, which is no easy task, so I give them a kind of scaffold for coming up with good, original thoughts.

I think Molly would approve of this scaffold because it takes its cues from scientific research. Here are a couple quotes that provide the theory behind it:

Game-changing scientific discoveries are more ‘Wait, what’s that?’ than ‘Look what I planned and discovered. — James Beacham, particle physicist 

We often fail to solve a problem not because we lack information, but because we believe things that just aren’t true. That’s why it’s always important to question assumptions, even if those assumptions come draped in the guise of authority.–Greg Satell

So here’s the process: 

Step one: Whatever the subject at hand, you first identify the general pattern. The trend. The tendency. In a narrative, that might mean it’s the most logical explanation for a character’s actions, or their most recognizable pattern of behavior. In nonfiction, that “character” might be you. 

Step two: Find an inconsistency. What doesn’t fit? Identify something that contradicts the general pattern, or that throws a wrench into things. What is unexplainable by the trend in a character’s actions? Why would someone with a happy childhood develop a drinking problem, say? Or, as in the case of my mother, whose story I’ve been trying to write for over fifteen years, why would someone with a traumatic childhood find stability and security so easily as an adult?

Step three: Account for the inconsistency. Devise an explanation for the contradiction. This explanation is your original idea. For my students, I call it a thesis. And in a way, this is classic plot structure: you start with the situation, then there’s tension or conflict, then resolution.

My mother herself provided the explanation for the wild contradiction in her life, the marvel of her emotional health and thriving after a childhood of turmoil. She says that through the tumult of her early life–living with her aunt and uncle and then her grandparents, and being told she had to choose, and being lied to over and over–through all that, she had the consistent parental love of her uncle and her grandmother. 

One of my students took on the question of how to reach vaccine-resistant people. The contradiction, for her, was the inability to convince people with sound scientific research. She found that those explanations just alienated people further. Her original idea? Empathy. She proposed that, instead of arguing, the way forward was to listen, to understand people’s hesitancy without judgment. 

In “The Cipher,” the contradiction is that non-believers would seem to think with certainty that God does not exist. Her explanation? That, itself, would be a belief. And so instead, she offers that non-believers live in the uncertainty of non-belief.

See? It works. So, start with a subject or idea or character you’re interested in exploring. Look at the general trend. See what you notice first. The pattern, the assumption. Then find the part that doesn’t add up. Then make the whole thing make sense again. 

That’s original. That thought belongs to you, and it matters, and it’s worth sharing.