The “Not Knowing” and its Value

Sometimes, the question IS the answer.

After the recent success of my post about Arthur Flowers’s advice to writers, I felt obliged to write another quicker but equally applicable piece about something else that emerged during my last MFA residency: “The Not Knowing.”

It seemed this phrase was everywhere over the 10 June days I spent at University of Tampa. Fiction writers, especially, swore by it. They recounted tales of how their stories simply “took on lives of their own” after a truly boffo first line or a vague inkling concept drove pen to page. As a poet, I failed to see the relevance. After all, poets like me are in the business of crafting lines one by one, giving explicit attention to the sound, the sense, the structure, and even the symbolism of each individual word. “The Not Knowing” seemed to be something that prose writers did, and even then, with sketchy success at best.

Usually, I have a pretty good idea about where a piece is headed when I sit down to REALLY begin writing. My brainstorming methods are sort of standard: If there’s a central metaphor at work (as there usually is), I start with a two-column note chart. This is a T chart, for those in business. Using this visual organizer, I’m able to see similarities, differences, and relationships between two things, be they objects, ideas, or something else entirely. Then, as the prewriting begins to hum, I usually have a few real zinging lines come into my mind. I write these down. I’ll use them later. Once I have  a pretty good collection of these musical lines, then I’m ready to begin really putting pen to paper in the poetic endeavor. So, as you can see, I’m fairly methodical.

There are always a few surprises that creep into poems: pleasant wordplay or unforeseen ironies. But usually, the act of creating poetry goes pretty much according to plan. I know that sounds terribly boring, but it’s true. I have an idea, I explore the idea, I create a product from the idea. Then there’s the refining and the rewriting. I go through A LOT of drafts on legal pads, and usually 4 or 5 on the computer screen. In all this process, there isn’t much room for “not knowing,” as my prose-writing friends described it.

So when the great “not knowing” happened to me, I was pleasantly surprised, both with its advent and its outcome. I had a pretty decent first line written down on an index card: It was comprised of a single striking image that had a few different elements working within it. This line had occurred to me during one of those between-class lapses when the tardy bell has not yet rung, and students are idling about, yakking and poking at one another.

When I pulled the index card from my pocket later at home, I just started freewriting (something I virtually NEVER do) based solely upon that single first line that really sang to me. I’d like to tell you the piece that came from this inspiration won me a Pushcart and a Pulitzer simultaneously, and that Natasha Trethewey has written me envious hate-mail because of it. That didn’t happen. However, what did happen was this: I was now able to look at a “spontaneous” piece, one that was driven completely by the great “not knowing” I’d heard about, and I could relate. All I had to begin with was one line — one line that had beauty, had potential, and had heart. And that was enough.

I know, I know. You probably want to see the poem now, right? Here’s the letdown, reader: I’ve sent that poem out to several potential publishers with packets of other works I’ve generated, so, sorry about that. It’s going to have to remain “in the dark” for now. However, when it does find a home, please rest assured that you’ll see it here first. And in the meantime, please feel free to explore your own “not knowing”-driven work. I’d love to hear how that works out for people outside the literary realm. Who knows where the uncertain might lead us?

5 thoughts on “The “Not Knowing” and its Value

  1. The Not Knowing way is what works best for me. I can’t explain it, weather it is poetry, or stories…If I plan it out, it seems to come out much worse than if I let it flow. The problem with that is…there are gaps in the flowing process…I have to look for inspiration…then I found your blog…Thanks

  2. I usually have a whole plot and a set of characters and a setting worked out before I can do some acual writing. But still, I feel like they keep on surprising me during the writing process. Sometimes an addition or a change to the plot just ‘pops’ into my head while I am writing. It have no clue where these surprises come from. It feels like the characters just decide to do something else, all on their own. Like their internal logic demands it.

    Can I just add one more thing, on a totally different score? Your posts would be much easier to read if you added some more paragraphs and whitespace to your text. Reading long pieces of continuous text on a computer screen is pretty hard. And that’s a pity, because your posts are always so interesting. 🙂

    • Thanks, almostwritten. Not sure why the white spaces between grafs didn’t show up last time — I’m usually a fan of the “open” look. Just went in to update, and apparently the white spaces were kept this time. Sorry for the jumbled look before.

      • That happened to me too a few times, I noticed. Once it just added all the lines of a poem together. No idea why. Aaaah technology. 🙂

  3. That’s a point I try to make with my students when I ask questions and force them to answer. Applying this to my own writing would seem obvious, but I don’t. Now, though, I will. I’ll be waiting to see what happens with your work.

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