Sunday, October 25, 2009

Not Knowing

On Sunday mornings, soon after posting on Wordswimmer, I'll drive over to Dunkin’ Donuts for a cup of coffee (and one or two Munchkins) and spend an hour or two writing.

Sometimes I’ll know in advance what I’m going to work on, but most often I'll have no idea what will happen.

All I know is that I have my notebook and pen in my knapsack, and a few bills in my pocket to buy the coffee and doughnuts. Beyond that? I never know what to expect.

For years this not knowing proved intimidating. Indeed, it was the most painful part of my writing process, and, often, I’d seek ways to avoid writing just to escape from the pain of not knowing.

Inevitably, I'd find it too great an obstacle to move past, an impediment to getting the words on paper.

The pain--maybe I should say the pain and shame that I felt on not knowing--was enough to send me scurrying away from my writing desk in search of a safer, less exposed place. (The basketball court, for instance, when I was younger, or, more recently, the pool.)

But I've come to learn (over years and years of practice) to accept the not knowing as an integral part of the process.

I have to be willing to sit down to write not knowing what will come.

I have to be willing to work past the momentary feelings of pain and shame (which still haunt me when I don’t know something but feel that I should know) and summon the courage to explore whatever is on my mind or whatever I’m feeling, even if I don’t know when I start writing what it is that I’m thinking or feeling.

Working past the not knowing--or, rather, working through the not knowing--is the only way that I can discover through the physical act of writing what’s on my mind or what I’m feeling.

Not knowing isn’t just part of the writing process. It is the writing process.

Not knowing is like a door: you don’t know what’s on the other side until you turn the knob and open it.

Or like swimming: you don’t know what you’ll find in the water until you dive in.

When you fear what you don’t know (as I often do) or feel embarrassed by not knowing (like me), you’re responding to fear, not just the fear of what other people will think, but fear of your own inadequacy or ignorance.

If you’re going to write, you cannot allow fear to rule you.

You must be willing to sit with not knowing. Only when you sit with it--sometimes for hours, sometimes for days or weeks--will you be able to write from a deeper place, a place beyond what you know or think you know.

If you can accept the fact of not knowing, the not knowing will lead you to a place where you'll find what you need to know.

It's that place where your inner truths--and your inner voice--are stored, waiting for you to find them.

For more on not knowing, visit:


Randall said...

Thanks for this, Bruce. I think it can apply to all aspects of life, not only writing. My greatest fear may be that I'll have sat with the fear for a lifetime.

Bruce Black said...

Yes, absolutely... not just writing but life as well. But in both cases it's the anticipation of danger or harm, I think, that we try to forestall by waiting fear out. The trouble is that as a strategy "waiting" rarely works. In writing, at least, I've found that only by writing through fear--the hands-on, physical act of writing--can I move past fear. It's as if the writing process --the pen, the paper, the movement of my hand--carries me forward, a lifeboat of sorts, pointing me in the direction that I need to follow.

Jude said...

You hit the nail on the head when you said, "Not knowing isn't just part of the writing process. It is the writing process." Bingo. That whole negative capability thing. You also articulated something I have been feeling forever but couldn't put my finger on exactly what it was when you talked about feeling embarrassed
or ashamed of not knowing something you feel you should know.

So, I want you to know that, thanks to your post, I took an itty bitty baby step and did something that I've known I needed to do for a long time yet kept putting off because I was afraid of where or what it might lead to.

In my current WIP (which I have been working on for-EV-er) there are scenes that take place in a nursing home. I worked in a nursing home (but only in the kitchen) when I was in high school and needless to say that was a LONG time ago and I know that I need to revisit one in order to reacquaint myself with that type of setting and also to talk with some of the residents.

I have been putting this off for way too long because: a.) I'm afraid it will be just one more wrong path; b.) I'm afraid I will find out that what I thought my story was about will suddenly reveal itself to be completely wrong and I will have to start all over AGAIN still not knowing what the heck I'm doing or where this thing is going; or c.) I will get totally sucked in and way too involved in the whole social/political/ethical issue of the elderly and abandon the writing life entirely for a career in gerontology or social work!

But, I want you to know, that after reading your post I decided to take the baby step of calling a local nursing home facility and making an appointment (next Friday afternoon) to visit and talk with some of the residents! Whew.

What happens after that, I have no idea but like you said, not knowing is the name of the game.

Bruce Black said...

It's so good to know that I found a way to articulate what a writer might feel in the dark... that I'm
not the only one in the dark, I guess... and, yes, we make it through the darkness (the not knowing) only by immersing ourselves in the not knowing.

I think there is the fear, which you hit on in your note, that we will be consigned to that darkness--kind of like a writer's purgatory--forever and ever, but that's the fear, not the reality.

The reality is that we make baby steps, just as you point out, and that each step is an essential key to moving through the not-knowing stage to the knowing stage.

So, congrats on your call to the nursing home. One way or other, it will help disperse the darkness and lead to the next step, right?

laurasalas said...

Wonderful post, Bruce. I don't like not knowing. But every day, I write a poem on whatever comes out at the moment. That's my small space of not knowing.

Otherwise, I usually know what I intend to write. Of course, what comes out is sometimes entirely different, and that's a delightful surprise when that happens.

Bruce Black said...

I love that phrase... "my small space of not knowing."
It's a space we all share, I think, though its size varies depending on the day and writer.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.