I Read “Not-Knowing” – and Now I Really Don’t Know

By: Aryanne Ferguson

While traipsing around WordPress this week, I came across 10 Greatest Essays on Writing. Of course I had to read them all, so I started with the first, “Not-Knowing” by Donald Barthelme.

“Not-Knowing” is no light read – I had to break out the dictionary a few times, but it was worth it. Here’s why: I’ve met a lot of writers, and when a bunch of writers get together, eventually the discussion turns to everyone’s personal writing processes. Strange tales are traded, but the writers who freak me out are the ones who dream up their whole world and then write it down. They type up an outline of the plot, have diagrams and charts and index cards full of information about their characters, their settings, even the prequel and the postquel (not a word – I know). I’ve seen color coded family trees that go back six generations. That level of planning freaking scares me.

One, even if I am capable of that level of imagination, I will forget it all the next day. And two, I find plot outlines much like staying between the lines while driving down the highway. Yes, it’s good to stay in the lines while driving down the highway, but if I’m writing a story I’d rather my car be sprinkled by fairy dust, levitate above the highway, and then I float on off to Neverland and have adventures; screw the painted lines on the road.

Sorry for the humiliation, Tinkerbell. (Peter Pan 1953)

So that’ll never happen in real life – so what? When I’m writing, I want the possibility that something analogous could happen in my story, otherwise where’s the fun of writing? So I knew Barthelme understood my point when he wrote:

“What happens next?
Of course, I don’t know.
It’s appropriate to pause and say that the writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.”
–(pg11)

This is me! What about you – are you the color coded family tree type? I recognize the usefulness of lists as a way to organize my thoughts, but I also recognize lists as a way of limiting my thoughts. What I forget to put on the list inevitably turns out to be equally as important. This is just the tip of the iceberg with respect to Barthelme’s essay. I recommend checking it out.

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