Writing With and Beyond Uncertainty

{18/365}.... Universe of Dreams ..

How much should you know about your story before you write it?

The conventional advice goes something like this:

First, write a one page summary of what your story is about. Know your characters inside and out. Come up with the conflict. Plot out your beginning, middle, and end. Know your theme.

Then write the story.

The urge to follow this advice is understandable.

It’s scary to stare down a blank page. What if we have nothing to say? What if what we have to say is boring? Or foolish? What if nobody likes it?

When we do have plenty to say, there’s so much meandering and frustration as we try to harness the mess of our ideas into something elegant and coherent.

Having some kind of engineering in place at the start is safe. Knowable.

It would make sense then that having all this certainty from the outset would produce our best stories.

But nothing is further from the truth.

And while the think-and-outline-before- you-write approach works for some writers, it’s sabotaging for most.

Because we have no clue what we’re going to write, let alone what we want to say, until we put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.

We don’t know what we know until it appears on the page.

Even when the events we write about are true.

Because writing what you know isn’t just about what happened. Not just the facts of your experience.

It’s about what you learn about yourself while you’re writing. Through your writing.

Knowing what you’re going to end up with is the worst way to create. Because meaning, structure, and beautiful sentences are not what we begin with. It’s what we end up with.

French philosopher Gaston Bachelard got it right when he said this:

Not knowing is not a form of ignorance, but a difficult transcendence towards knowledge.

Uncertainty is essential to the creative process. And produces our richest, most rewarding work.

The best stories contain mystery, surprise and risk.

Too much certainty strips the creative process dry. It corrals your characters into a limited set of preconceived situations you’ve set up for them, which is a joyless experience for you.

When we embrace and revel in that open space of not-knowing, when we collaborate and play with our uncertainty rather than against it, we create an infinite range of possibilities for our works in progress. And we have loads more fun.

Imagination and reverie are also creative forces in knowing.

Creativity thrives from staying open and receptive and above all, curious. You can’t rely solely on the intellect.

The writing process is messy. There’s nothing linear or certain about it.

Start with questions.

Writers are on a quest of sorts. The same questions and obsessions haunt us throughout our lives, often throughout our entire body of work. We use our works in progress to probe our obsessions – questions that demand to be looked at over and over, more and more deeply.

What are you curious about? What perplexes you? What frustrates you? What in your life has upended you?

What is it about your story you want to explore? What fascinates you about your characters and their situation? What are you trying to understand about yourself through exploration of this particular piece of writing?

There’s clarity in the questions themselves.

Structure, plot, character, and theme emerge in the act of writing.

They’re discovered and refined over time. Not premeditated.

Plot, character, and theme are ways of thinking your way though your material as you write. It’s not something you do first and then you’re done. It comes from engaging with your work ever more deeply as you revise and re-envision your work.

You do your best writing when you’re a little uncertain, a little scared.

Trust that, over time, as you work with, through and beyond your uncertainty, you’ll arrive at something beautiful, elegant and potent.

In the meantime, don’t be afraid to write from mystery, from wonder, from not knowing.

Post to Twitter

How to Create Subtext in Dialogue

There’s this unforgettable scene in the film Sideways where failed novelist Miles and his romantic interest Maya rhapsodize to one another about their reverence for wine. Except that they’re talking about so much more. An excerpt: MILES … [Pinot}’s a hard grape to grow. As you know. It’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s not a…

Character Questionnaire: the actor’s technique

We spend a lot of time thinking about what our characters want. Wanting something, and wanting it bad, is fundamental to developing character and plot. But often what we come up with is what our characters want in the most immediate sense. The concrete goal. Humbert wants Lolita. Anna wants to be with Vronsky. Hannibal…

How Your Writing Group Is Holding You Back

Recently, a reader told me that members of her writing group had eviscerated her novel-in-progress. The collective feedback was so disheartening she wanted to ditch her manuscript and quit the writing gig altogether. My heart always breaks a little when I hear stories like this. But it reminded me of all the peer groups I’ve…

5 Ways To Get Out Of A Writing Funk

If you’re like me, there comes that moment when you loathe what you’ve written. You read what poured out on the page in a meteor shower of inspiration. And then everything that felt glittering and brilliant just yesterday now feels trite. Flat. Messy. Implausible. We read our favorite books and think, Jeez, I’ll never write…

How to Turn Setbacks Into Progress

Your novel was turned down by a publisher. You just received a form rejection letter – the worst kind-  from an agent. Or maybe the feedback from your workshop flattened you to the point of paralysis. You thought your story was so much closer. Setbacks can crush us. And cause even the most resilient writers…

Writing Success Redefined

How do you measure your success as a writer? Is it by how much money you earn from your writing? Is it the publishing contract? Nailing an agent? Sure, those are external markers of success. But what does success as a writer mean to you? Years ago, when I began writing in earnest, a dancer…

Writing to Draw Readers in Emotionally

Flannery O’Connor once said that, as writers, we can’t create emotion with emotion. We need to provide it with a body, to “create a world with weight and extension.” Love on its own, for example, is too broad and abstract for the reader to feel. If we write about something as ethereal as love without anchoring it…

7 Ways to Write Better (That Have Nothing to Do With Writing)

 When it comes to unleashing our best, most potent writing, it’s not only about the hours we have, it’s the quality of mind and body we bring to those hours. There’s the skill of writing and then there’s our physiological, mental and emotional state. Ultimately, you can’t separate them. Here are some ways to improve…

Going From Stupid to Cool

In February of last year, I attended a weekend west coast swing dance intensive with dancer, choreographer, teacher extraordinaire, Robert Royston. The weekend was ultra light on footwork and dance patterns and high on technique; the physics of movement, partner dynamics and connection, how to spin from a low to high center of gravity, musicality, and…