In the course of our wonderful and tragic conversation, he made a point so well I was intellectually floored. He framed the dilemma he was facing by asking "what's the question the answer to which will give me direction?"
Let me explain.
In crises of our lives, sometimes, a simple question can focus the mind and remove all extraneous matter. In the determination of a president's term of office, for example, the question "are you better off now than you were four years ago?" is often used to simplify and focus the complexity of the issue.
The tricky part, as my friend so eloquently stated, is not always finding the ANSWER, but finding the QUESTION.
In my own writing, I've found that this is true, also. The key in prewriting (thinking about the story before setting it to paper) is finding the story, which can come in the form of the question, "whose story is this?" or "what does he/she want and cannot have?" or something like that. But in the course of writing, I find that my best work comes when I know what QUESTION I am answering.
So, dear friend and college roommate, I will certainly think hard of a good question for you.
Be seeing you!