Shifting the Paradigm of Not Knowing: Writer’s Sweet Spot

The blank white page have your brain constipated? Maybe it’s a good thing. Not knowing where your writing is going can be frustrating, scary, and debilitating, but what if it wasn’t? What if the uneasiness you feel when trying to write something that matters to you is precisely what’s needed to create something of imaginative value?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the positive psychology researcher who has devoted much study on creativity, points out, in the clip above, that in his research, the most successful creative artists don’t start with preconceived ideas.  Trying to understand the problem they are confronted with is what makes them successful.

This is echoed by Jennifer Egan, when, according to Rachel Hodin, she “described the horrifying moment when you are nearing the end of your novel, and you don’t know what’s going to happen to your characters next”:

“How can I not know what’s going to happen when it’s coming up so soon? I am their creator, after all!” But then, she explains, it’s this exact feeling of uncertainty that a writer needs to succeed. Because any of the possible paths you might have in mind for your character are too obvious and should not be employed.

Tim O’Brien notes how the not knowing frustrates a lot of writers, but for him, it’s what propels him forward:

The act of writing for me is largely the act of following sentences and making sentences. And for most people that probably is the time to click off and look at something else, but unfortunately for me, stories grow out of a sentence. For example, the sentence, “This is true,” began one of my stories. I wrote the sentence and had no idea what was true, true in what sense I had no idea. Then I wrote another sentence to follow that: “A buddy in Vietnam named Bob Kiley.” Well, I’m partly discovering and I’m partly just curious about or fascinated about issues of what could be true and what is the character going to say is true, and does this character really mean it? Does he really mean it’s true? And to what degree does this character think it’s true? And how can anybody say “this is true” without a little tongue-in-cheek action going on? So, it’s a discovery, and what I think is one of my better stories grew wholly out of the unplanned, out of a scrap of language.

What I hear: Don’t worry if you feel uneasy.  Relish it.  Be patient.  Give it time.  Expect something good to follow.





2 responses to “Shifting the Paradigm of Not Knowing: Writer’s Sweet Spot

  1. Scorpio Scribes

    This post came at a perfect time for me! I am nearing the end of my first full novel, one that I actually started in your class about four years ago. Over the last week I have been struggling with the question of now what? It is coming together slowly, I’m trying not to rush it.

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