I just spent an hour looking for a quote by John Irving, or rather, by Lily from his book The Hotel New Hampshire. I can’t find it. It’s not there. It doesn’t exist on the internet (which means it might as well NOT EXIST AT ALL) and I don’t have the book here for reference.
Somehow, this is all very fitting.
Anyways. This is how I remember the quote:
“Writers have to know everything. Either that, or they have to shut the hell up.”
So let’s just pretend I did find that on the internet. I mean, it’s not as if you were going to check the source, right? You were just going to read that and think ‘awesome quote. (How does she know all these things? On my word, reading her blog is like dipping my pinky toe in a pool of eternal wisdom.)’
You’re welcome. Also, the quote was partly just a poorly-disguised excuse to use this:
Okay, great, but between the title and the quote, I’m confused.
Why is this post called ‘I don’t know anything’, when – if we take John’s (alleged) word for it – a writer has to know EVERYTHING?
Well the thing is, I’m in the painful process of realizing that the EVERYTHING you need to know as a writer, is an entirely different EVERYTHING from the one I thought I needed to know. And now I’m in this parallel universe where everything I know kind of doesn’t matter, and the value of everything that I DON’T know is slowly becoming apparent to me. Please stay with me as we travel the windings of this mysterious paradox universe together, because even if I’m not making a lot of sense right now, I do think that the things I don’t know are the essence of what writing really is.
The coherent writing universe
I’ll start by talking about the ‘everything’ I do know, which is CRAFT. This is the part of the writing process that is made up of technical and transferable snippets of information, held together by the glue of (rational) comprehensibility.
It is a penned down representation of a mystery.
It is what books about writing can teach you.
It is what writing coaches like myself work with.
In the coherent writing universe, all you need to write a book are the ‘macro rules’ (things like working with a premise, using plot points, using a dramatic setting, etc); the ‘micro rules’ (compelling style, spelling, grammar, etc); a decent amount of time; and a certain number of words you pump out each day.
Now, this is not saying that writing in the coherent universe is easy. Not at all. You still have to work to access material within yourself that speaks to you, and you have to work even harder to get a grip on the internal coherence of your book, the ‘rules’ that can only come from deep within your story. Here we are approaching ‘mystery land’ – as I’m going to name it for this occasion – but at the end of the day, you can stay safely within the boundaries of the coherent writing universe and write a pretty good book.
The keyword being ‘pretty’
Most of the novels I’ve helped people write are that: ‘pretty good’. I’ve recently joined Twitter and I see it on the blogs of many of the Indie authors I follow, too: pretty good books by people who have clearly done their homework.
So what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that – with a few choice exceptions – I don’t see many GREAT books out there. I don’t see many American Psychos or The Corrections, books that take their own inner logic to such a brutal, uncompromising extreme that they take ME past ‘coherent’, too, straight into a land I didn’t know existed and couldn’t for the life of me describe, but which I am very grateful to have discovered.
I’m finding out that there seems to be a missing link in most of the writing courses, how-to-blogs and books about writing out there. And I can’t blame them, because that missing link only shows as a blank on the monitor, as a path beyond coherence, in our minds. I’ve been a writing coach for seven years and completed five years of writing school prior to that, and only now that I’m examining my own creative writing, I see what I can’t see.
So what is this mysterious ‘blank’, this X-factor? It’s hard to describe rationally, but my instinct is that it has something to do with ‘urgency’; the drive within the story that compels you to write it down. It’s the crazy within all of us that we can’t get a grip on, the crazy we try and use stories to charm, if not comprehend.
It’s everything we don’t know, captured in a form we can know.
This is what great art, and only great art, can do for us.
Pfff. I need a breather
Me too. Let’s take a break and go back to the pretty we understand.
The trouble with writing mystery down
How can we approach the blank? After all, it’s something we can’t see. Plus, there are many obstacles to writing down what we can’t see, even if we were to get in touch with it.
One of the problems is that I think we often confuse the urgency within ourselves with the urgency within the story (or any great work of art). Just because YOU feel a compelling need to write, doesn’t mean that what you write is going to be great. Unfortunately. Because after all, if you follow your own urges, you can’t allow for accidents to happen. You don’t leave room to breath, for mystery to shine through the cracks.
So if you can’t take your own feelings as a guide, how do you know when you are in touch with the urgency of your story? I think the crucial factor is ‘looking for what is NOT it’. You can’t see the blank, but you can see where the blank isn’t. Last week I found a great Hemingway quote that seems to apply here:
“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar, and all great writers have it.”
In the end, that’s all we can do, I think. Go where we don’t know what is what anymore, drawn by something we can only see from the corners of our eyes. Listening carefully to what is becoming apparent to us, without making the mistake of wanting to claim or grasp it. Letting it be itself, ‘just removing everything that is NOT the sculpture’, by prodding around with our bullshit-detector and being merciless to whatever bullshit we come across.
Like I said, I really don’t know anything at this point. I’ve tried to describe my instincts about what I sense that I DON’T know, and a possible connection with the process of making great art. That does not, unfortunately, mean that I will make great art because of this. It also doesn’t mean that we can dismiss craft, or technicality. Not to mention, it pretty much reduces your (at least, my) ego to a wrung-out rag.
But in spite of all that, I do think it’s important to point out the difference between good and great. Right now I think we are being swamped by good (and often not-so-good, to be honest), while what we really need to aspire is greatness. Not even because it will lead us to do great things ourselves, but because it will allow us to recognize great, and cherish it.
If the first step towards a predictable, quality outcome is mastery, then the first step towards doing unpredictable (and possibly brilliant) things is to go beyond mastery and let go of what you know. For my part, I think it’s better to know nothing than to think I know it all. And even if this path is not for everyone, I think that if you want to take yourself seriously as an artist, you owe it to yourself to ask at least once:
How much do I really know? And how far am I willing to go to find out what I don’t know?
This fabulous picture belongs to Adam Golfer.