What You Don't Know Can Kill Someone
By Deri Ross Pryor, Bluegrass Writers Studio
You never know what you don’t know, you know?
My entire life, I’ve been obsessed with knowing. Like truly, maniacally obsessed. I never let my parents get away with the whole “because” answer to all my “why’s.” When I got old enough to find the answers myself, I did so doggedly. One of my fondest memories was at about age five or six, yanking down volumes of our Encyclopedia Britannica, each almost as big as me, and methodically going over each entry. I just wanted to know all there was to know.
Even in my later childhood, when most kids were reading stuff like Sweet Valley High, I toted around a huge series of books about random facts. I got into an argument with my mother once about how she failed me by not teaching me French (never mind that she didn’t know French either) because whenever I read Jane Eyre (which was often) I had no freaking clue what that little brat Adele was saying (turns out, nothing important).
Fast forward to adulthood. Yep, still obsessed. To the point that sometimes I’m paralyzed when I realize I don’t know what I think I need to know. This is not a helpful trait, let me tell you. It’s even worse when you are a writer. The need to know has been holding me back. And I didn’t even know it.
Writer Jeff Parker, in his craft talk at this year’s Winter Residency, “Not-Knowing and Repetition,” brilliantly outlined all the reasons why not knowing is beneficial to a writer. Writing is an art form. Most artists have a general idea of what they want to accomplish, the end result, but the joy comes in the creative process. If they already know exactly how each step will go, where is the joy in that? There is none. So why do it? The flip side is what I struggle with, the inability to even start because of the belief that not-knowing equals not-ready, or worse, not-good-enough.
As part of his talk, Parker used the essay “Not-Knowing” by Donald Barthelme. One passage struck me right in the chest:
The not-knowing process is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.
“There would be no invention.” Those words are big. Enormous. Life changing. Parker went on to point out that not-knowing is a key to science. Which makes sense. Without the basic element of human wonderment, without trying to figure out how to learn what is not yet known, we’d all still be sitting in caves freezing our butts off. There’d be no Encyclopedia Britannica,or large books of random facts. There wouldn’t even be Sweet Valley High. Not-knowing opens us to all the possibilities.
Parker also pointed out something extremely important to all this. We are bombarded – daily -- with narratives. They become embedded in our consciousness and influence our own stories. The only way to get away from telling the same old stories over and over again is by not-knowing.
Of course, this is not to say that we shouldn’t have some direction, some destination to aim for. Parker used the adage by E.M. Forster from his Aspects of a Novel: “The king and queen died is the story. The king died, and then the queen died of grief is the plot.” In other words, we can know the story, the destination, but it is the plot that becomes the wandering invention of our minds, the part we don’t have to know yet. Like going on a road trip and allowing yourself to stop at road attractions that aren’t on the map. (Who wouldn’t like a surprise detour to the world’s largest ball of twine?)
Of course, this can be a frightening prospect, especially for someone like me who still uses GPS to navigate to places I’ve been to a bajillion times. (I mean, what if something changed, right? No?) So, what then? Repetition.
Not redundancy, because nobody likes redundant writing. No one likes to read the same thing over and over. (See what I did there?) Redundancy is boring and lazy. Repetition, when done well, can serve to reinforce themes and imagery in new and exciting ways. In essence all our stories are a repetition of all the stories that have come before. It is our job to make them fresh and new. And we do this by??? Anybody?
Yes, the not-knowing.
By allowing our minds to roam free, to embrace all the possibilities. We can know the story without really knowing all the details of the plot when we sit down to write. Maybe the King and Queen were star-crossed lovers who go through hell and high water to get together. Maybe they have to fight off ten-feet tall water trolls to save their kingdom. Maybe they just had a baby and the king steps on a rusty nail going to get her bottle in the middle of the night and dies of sepsis. The only thing holding us back is the limits of our imaginations.
So, go write and practice not-knowing. Because you never know what you will come up with, you know?
Published on February 12, 2015