The Art of Not Knowing

Every time I teach my online fiction writing course, several students introduce themselves by saying, in one form or another, that by the end of the class they hope to find out whether they have talent.

I, too, would like to know whether I have talent. Every time I sit down to write, I have the urge to gaze at at my own work like Narcissus gawking at his own image in a pool, and I wonder whether what I create is beautiful, horrifically bad, or simply in need of substantial revision. I am not alone. For instance, Lynda Barry, in her autobiographical comic, “Two Questions,” recounts how the dichotomy “Is this good?”/“Does this suck?” nearly destroyed her ability to do art because she began to see each piece she created as a judgment on her worth as an artist and a human being.

Having spent about a decade of my precious days on earth asking myself similar questions, I wish I could help my students avoid this particular creative death spiral. I tell them that practicing any sort of art is a long process and that they are at the beginning of the process. I tell them that the course will occupy only a few weeks of their lives, and I warn them against using these weeks as an oracle that will tell them whether they should keep writing or not. I tell them, too, that I make a point of not answering questions about my opinion of their potential.

The more I write and slog through the uncertainty of writing, the more I realize that Barry’s two questions are the very last ones I should be asking because they’re just not relevant to the work itself. I have been told all sorts of things about my writing – everything from “You’re not James Joyce” to “I don’t see why you would care so much about things that aren’t even real” to the coveted “This is very strong work” – and nothing anyone has said has made much difference to my confidence level. (In one of my first college writing workshops, on the other hand, the professor recounted an incident from her own college years, in which an embittered professor told a student, “If I wrote like you, I’d slit my throat,” which almost certainly would have had an impact – but I desperately hope that story is an urban legend.) In response to various negative reactions and rejections, I’ve spent long periods of Not Writing, but I have always gone back to it eventually; and when I have received praise and encouragement, I’ve glowed for a few days and then spent weeks and months convinced that I would never write anything good ever again.

Like I said: creative death spiral.

Every time I begin to write, I start at zero. I feel that I am not just inventing a story, but myself as a writer. It as though I have to relearn everything I have ever known, every single time. I have to accept – again – that what I have to say, should I even succeed in saying it, may not be worth saying. I may be a better writer than when I started out, but that doesn’t mean I won’t write something terrible, and I am fairly sure I will fall far short of what I wish I could write. If I want to keep going, I have to embrace zero and everything it doesn’t mean. I have had to stop believing that my feelings have any relationship whatsoever to the quality of what I produce. I have to focus on the work itself, not ponder whether it is any good.

Lynda Barry’s comic dramatizes her search for “what is missing” in her art. In the last frames of the strip, she is taunted by ghosts whose frenzy increases the more she resists, until she inadvertently cries out the answer: “I don’t know!” and liberates her work from questions of meaning and worth.

Inevitably, my students will ask themselves the two questions no matter what I say to them, just as I did in my first writing class and for many years afterwards; and some students will read every comment they receive as though it’s a prophesy of what is possible. Some will become angry when what they think of as the oracle suggests that years of practice may stand between them and instant brilliance. I can’t stop my students from wanting answers to the question, “Do you think I’m any good at this?” any more than I could stop myself from asking the same thing when I was in my first workshop. But just because I’ve had – and continue to have – my own struggles with Barry’s lesson doesn’t mean I can’t try to bequeath it to my students.

At my college, the creative writing faculty have been charged with coming up with a way to measure what students learn in art and performance classes they take for general education credit. We had a spirited discussion about what was attainable in one beginning writing course, but we all agreed that it was not reasonable to expect a piece of high artistic quality the first time through the process. None of us, I suspect, are as good as we would like to be, which gives us common ground with our students. The difference is that those of us with more experience have by now swapped our fantasies of genius for a long, lonely march along an unmarked path through unmapped terrain, in search of a hypothetical treasure that may or may not have value. This expanse of untrodden mystery, however, is what freedom actually looks like.

Take it from someone who doesn’t know.