Write What You Don't Know

"Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how. . . . [W]hat I do know comes into being at the instance it's inscribed. . . . I discover this by writing the sentence that announces it."

Here is our Obsession of the Month, Donald Barthelme, offering his insights into writing and how to deal with the unknown things hiding inside a blank page. The things a writer doesn't know when she sits down to write can be crippling, starting a period of writer's block out of which it is difficult to break. In his essay "Not Knowing," Barthelme encourages you to reshape our thinking about the blank page, arguing instead that it is specifically the difficulties of the unknown that reimagine your writing and shape your style.

You can read the entire essay here or purchase it with a collection of Barthelme's other essays and interviews here.

Most writers, upon sitting down to write, have a nascent idea or starting point. Where to from there? "Of course, I don't know," writes Barthelme. "The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do." 

This could be a discouraging definition of the writer, but Barthelme goes on to explain how this befuddlement is essential to great writing:

[T]he not-knowing is crucial to the art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention."
Bram van Velde, “Untitled, Paris-Montrouge” (1956), oil on canvas, 51 x 76-3/4 inches (via   members.chello.nl  )

Bram van Velde, “Untitled, Paris-Montrouge” (1956), oil on canvas, 51 x 76-3/4 inches (via members.chello.nl)

He acknowledges that this puts the writer in a difficult situation:

Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how. We have all heard novelists testify to the fact that, beginning a new book, they are utterly baffled as to how to proceed, what should be written and how it might be written, even though they’ve done a dozen. At best there’s a slender intuition, not much greater than an itch. The anxiety attached to this situation is not inconsiderable. ‘Nothing to paint and nothing to paint with,’ as Beckett says of Bram van Velde. The not-knowing is not simple, because it’s hedged about with prohibitions, roads that may not be taken. The more serious the artist, the more problems he takes into account and the more considerations limit his possible initiatives.

Why are these prohibitions and roads not taken so important to the serious artist? Barthelme argues that to the extent the writer deals with and lives within these problems, he or she also reimagines writing and literature in a progressive and constructive way.

Barthelme's writing was prominent in the 1970s and 1980s, and his problems were those of postmodernism. In "Not Knowing", Barthelme focuses on his responses to the specific problem of how to restore freshness to the English language, which he saw as stale, as co-opted by power structures, and as vitiated by pop-culture. I'll save these insights for a later discussion on postmodernism, where I may look into what kinds of problems stand before us today in the 20-teens.

Barthelme also addresses the vague concept of "style." He claims that style develops out of a writer's approach to solving the page's problems:

Style is not a matter of choice. One does not sit down to write and think: Is this poem going to be a Queen Anne poem, a Biedermeier poem, a Vienna Secession poem, or a Chinese Chippendale poem? Rather it is both a response to constraint and a seizing of opportunity. Very often a constraint is an opportunity . . .  Style enables us to speak, to imagine again. . . . The fact is not challenged, but understood, momentarily, in a new way. It’s our good fortune to be able to imagine alternative realities, other possibilities. We can quarrel with the world, constructively."

We writers, then, are to embrace our lack of knowledge of what is next on the page, of how this story or poem will work out the problems before us. We wrestle with the problems of our time and play them out. We move forward inside the constraints of our world's problems, as a way of playing with and reimagining our world. "Problems in part define the kind of work the writer chooses to do, and are not to be avoided but embraced.  A writer, says Karl Kraus, is a man who can make a riddle out of an answer."

Francoise-Xavier Fabre,  Oedipus and the Sphinx

Francoise-Xavier Fabre, Oedipus and the Sphinx

What are the problems that face you when you sit down to write? What disturbs you most about your world, and how can you set up your story to engage those problems? I don't think you need to be as explicit in stating your problems as Barthelme is. Barthelme is a very "literary" writer, commenting on language and literature itself through his work. Many of us don't want to write that kind of work, but we can still reimagine the types of works we would like to write.

If postmodernists are correct that all stories have been written, it is reimagination that is our particular duty as writers today. Whether we want to address the grand threats to art and literature in this moment, or the specific problems of how a certain character struggles with depression or faces death if he doesn't finish creating a needlepoint pillow accurately depicting from memory a collage of the works of Renoir in the next eight hours, it is the problems of our writing, the blocks along the way, that, when overcome, will give our work its distinctive power and style.

I'll give Barthelme the last word, presenting his inspiring vision for how literature and art can reshape the world:

But if I have anything unorthodox to offer here, it’s that I think art’s project is fundamentally meliorative. The aim of meditating about the world is finally to change the world. It is this meliorative aspect of literature that provides its ethical dimension.” 


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