The art of not knowing

August 18th, 2014, 11am

During my last year of college, I took a creative fiction writing course on a whim. Even though I was an English major, I had never created stories since I was a child. I just enjoyed reading them through an empathetic, analytical lens. I enjoyed finding the hidden meanings encoded in the characters, relationships, and events that expressed something fundamental about us funny human creatures. Relating to the story on this level was in my comfort zone.

On the first day of class, we read “Dinner at Uncle Boris’” by Charles Simic. Oh, Uncle Boris. The first character I’ve met who could truly make “Mother Teresa reach for a baseball bat.” We were invited to a typical family dinner of his, where spoons drop, arias are sung off-key, and political arguments made with mouths full. Using this short story as inspiration, we were to write a scene about our own family dinners which conveyed the unique dynamics, feel, and personalities of whoever was at the table. I was looking forward to this assignment until I learned we were to craft this scene on the spot, within three minutes.

I froze. While my classmates were scribbling away, I spent most of the time planning how my scene was going to unfold. There were so many possibilities, and I wanted to think through each one before I began putting words to the page. I could feel the time ticking away. The girl across from me was on her second page. Yet, I couldn’t start writing. I needed my outline and a preconceived idea of where I was going. By the time the three minutes were up, I had written three lousy sentences that didn’t come close to capturing how adorably cute my family members were and what dinner was like at our house.

I used to think writers had their stories all figured out before they began writing. I envisioned these grand narrative arcs posted on their blackboards, outlines with bullet points, and arrows marking transitional moments. But the more I read their reflections on the writing process, the more I realized this isn’t the case. Often, they start out with a single idea, a fragment, an image still half-congealed in their consciousness and just go with it. Even though they have no clue what to make out of this initial cue, for some reason, they feel that it must be expressed. From here, they just write and have faith that their writing will take them somewhere worthwhile. They keep trudging through the unknown, through the mess and tangles that may arise until something beautiful happens.

Robert Boswell reflects about this process in his book, “The Half-Known World.” In it, I feel as if he hits something real. He says:

“In the drafts that follow, I listen to what has made it to the page. Invariably, things have arrived that I did not invite, and they are often the most interesting things in the story. By refusing to fully know the world, I hope to discover unusual formations in the landscape, and strange desires in the characters. By declining to analyze the story, I hope to keep it open to surprise. Each new draft revises the world but does not explain or define it. I work through many drafts, progressively abandoning the familiar. What I can see is always dwarfed by what I cannot know. What the characters come to understand never surpasses that which they cannot grasp. The world remains half-known.”

I think it’s the same with life. Like I used to believe with writing, I used to think that I was always supposed to have my life figured out in advance. I woke up knowing what I was going to do that day. I did lots of preliminary research and made itineraries before I traveled. I had back up plans for all the risks. But a post graduation existential crisis, a year of travel, and a 3500 mile motorbike journey later, I now see and approach life differently. I see it more like writing fiction.

Now, I see how planning was one of the ways I dealt with the feelings of insecurity that arose when I didn’t know what was going to happen. It’s good to know beforehand and plan for certain things, but doing so can also limit the possibilities our stories can take. Boswell’s reflection helped me see the silver linings underlying that dreaded “gray area,” and with more practice, I started giving space for the unknown in my writing. When I did, cool things started arising; “unusual formations” started breaking through. My stories became less one dimensional and now had room to stretch beyond the limits of my imagination.

From writing, came living. I tried to plan less and go with the flow more. This took an uncomfortable adjustment period (actually many), where sometimes, I would feel so vulnerable with what could happen when I didn’t know. Through practice, however, I was able to let go of this fear bit-by-bit and receive what the present offered. When I did, unimaginable things started happening, just like in my stories. I met people I never would have planned to meet: characters as crazy as Uncle Boris whose perspectives enriched my own. I was exposed to situations that put me out of my comfort zone, where the growth really happens. I was able to free myself from a lot of expectations that had been barriers to finding meaningful path(s) through life. By living my way into my own story, I saw how Boswell was right—not knowing really leaves room for surprise.

We’re not omniscient beings, so of course, not knowing is an inevitable part of life. Despite this fact, I feel like we often ostracize the unknown and hold ourselves accountable to having our lives figured out before we even start figuring out who we are. I feel like there’s this unspoken deadline to submit a definitive answer before college graduation (and in some cases, high school graduation). By then, everyone is supposed to leave with a set trajectory, even if they haven’t found what genuinely interests them. Our education doesn’t broaden much from there. Instead, learning starts narrowing vertically. There’s not so much of a grace period left for searching.

What happens, then, is that the expectation to know drives many people to commit to things they’re not passionate about. I see this happening especially with college students. Many rush into the first predefined track that offers them “security,” even if it doesn’t fit with who they are or what they want. As a recent graduate, I understand the need to make a living. But the thing is that once we do, we often stop there. We stop searching. Once in, it’s often hard to get out. From experience, I’ve learned there are plenty of ways to support yourself while exploring, so I think the central barrier isn’t one of money, but one of not knowing. Time spent working a 9-5 job you dislike could be better used for finding something you’re genuinely excited about.

Of course it’s another story for those who’ve acquired certain non-negotiable responsibilities, such as family dependents. Even so, the fear of not knowing can still bear effects. It can cause us to rush when we’re confused or refrain from pursuing that initial cue we feel must be expressed—whether it’s a curiosity, passion, or half-formed idea.

I see people around me who are unhappy, unfulfilled, or lost in their current tracks. Yet, they are scared to leave their situation because they don’t know where they’ll end up if they do. It’s like the fear of not knowing locks them in a defined track or place in life, which provides a sense of security (is it real, though?), but no happiness or fulfillment.

Just imagine what would happen if we shifted our cultural attitude towards not knowing. Instead of stigmatizing it, if we embraced it as an essential process of life. Like Boswell, if we saw the unknown not as a static void, but as a dynamic energy field teeming with possibilities. Of course, there are times when it’s best to know and times when it is irresponsible to just go with the flow. But when we turn away from that inevitable fact—that everything is way beyond our comprehension— and the process that goes with it, we can also be missing out on so many opportunities to find the most interesting and important things in life.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s scary when you don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m still scared when I go for something I feel deep in my gut, without knowing the outcome. But I’ve learned it can also be thrilling—to let life happen, instead of actively holding it by the reigns. This requires a certain degree of trust in life, which might be the hard part. To give up some control and have faith that, through the unknown and your own personal convictions, life will lead you somewhere worthwhile.

James, Chris and Lin said thanks.

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Finding the magic outside my comfort zone.

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