Former Portlander Kathryn Schulz is an expert on wrongness. Right or wrong, she wrote an entire book on the subject.
Schulz, a journalist who's written for The New York Times Magazine, The Nation and Rolling Stone, delves into philosophical and scientific ideas that address "wrongness" with a reporter's deftness and scope in her first book, Being Wrong. She reveals there are many, many ways to be wrong, from when our senses trick us into seeing an optical illusion to our own memories of events. However, it turns out that being wrong isn't as big a problem as the difficulty we have with letting go of "rightness" because it forces us to rethink how we view ourselves and the world. In a recent phone interview before her appearance at Powell's this Tuesday, Schulz explained how embracing our wrongness can help us all become more...right.
WW: Did you write this book in order to prove you were right about something?
Kathryn Schulz: I actually started by thinking about being right and how we're all attached to that experience. I wondered: "Why do I want to be right? Why do I spend so much time to prove my own rightness?" I started to think about the book in 2004 when our country was so intensely politicized before the presidential election, and no one could fathom that they were wrong about anything. I shared some of those feelings, but I knew it wasn't good for us as a country. That was part of what was going on for me.
In the process of writing Being Wrong, what did you learn that surprised you?
I have this theory that we remove anything that is positive or interesting from the category of "wrongness." We have such negative associations with the idea of error that if something is good or makes us happy and we learn from it, then it's suddenly not a part of wrongness; happy surprises, sensory illusions, moments of illumination—those happen because of wrongness, but we don't think of it that way because we have such negative associations with the idea.
What's the worst thing that's ever happened when you've been wrong?
I think that the two things hardest to be wrong about are other people and ourselves. I'm old enough to have had my heart broken. I was in this relationship I thought I was going to be in forever when I was 24. I was completely and totally wrong about that, and it was so painful, and part of the pain is wrongness—the shock in thinking your life is going a certain way and then having that collapse. After that, I traveled the world; I moved to New York, I became a writer. Everything I love about my life came out of the catastrophic collapse of those beliefs.
What is the best part of being wrong?
The possibility to come up with a new idea. The experience of being wrong forces us to explore further, and to me that experience of surprise and confusion, which can be disorienting, it makes you see the world in a new way, and suddenly everything is new.
You discuss how ideas about rightness and wrongness shape our beliefs and bind us to our communities. Did any of your beliefs change when you were living in Portland?
I lived in Portland for not quite four years, and I go back often. I think all the time about how different some of the values are from New York. It's a little less about explicit beliefs like politics and religion, and more about what is cherished or ignored, or looked down on. I feel like it's a culture that really values community, time with friends, and the outdoors. It's totally acceptable to work a little less and spend more time in beautiful places and with the people you love, which I really miss.
I think the flip side of this is that I'm struck by how there's not a lot of value placed on ambition, at least in the circles I moved in. I think ambition even has a sort of negative connotation there, which I don't think it necessarily should. The thing I find about New York is a community of people who are extremely driven to do whatever they have committed their life to, and consequently they produce amazing results. On the other hand, they're crazy....
It relates to the concept of "wrongness" in that every time we move from one culture to another we find that our beliefs are being challenged a little bit. Every time I go back and forth between the two cities I have to ask myself: "What's the life I want to live? Do I want to write a book that I love that killed me to write, or do I want to spend time with my family and leave work early on a Friday and go to the Cascades?"
Kathryn Schulz reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 Tuesday, June 29. Free.