A question has been holding me hostage for some time now. It follows me down the street, trails behind me down the river, folds itself into my yoga practice. Every time I come close to an answer I’m left unsatisfied; I still wander around it. Maybe it’s a joint effort and I haunt it as much as it haunts me. My question is:
How do we do something that we don’t know how to do?
The answer, cleverly embedded into the question is, we just do it. Yes, I say to myself stuck at my desk staring absently into my blank screen, but how?
Sometimes I am lucky enough to stumble onto blips of answers. And answers, a lot like love or other dreadful things, come when we least expect them. Like the other night when, by divine providence I happened to find myself at Southbank Centre on the final night of London’s Literary Festival. The very night they closed the week with readings and talks from the six authors shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Without hesitation, I buy a ticket in the nosebleed section, get myself a glass of sauv blanc and wonder, moodily, as I slump into my cushioned chair (sip) if I’m going to like this.
When Trinidadian author (and future winner of the Man Booker) Marlon James starts off by reading his imagined biography of Bob Marley, “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” written in second person narrative, my moody blues lift. I lean in when he talks about how he’d written over two hundred pages of short stories about Bob Marley and never fully understood that what he was writing — a book about Bob Marley — was in fact a book about Bob Marley (Ha!) until a friend pointed it out.
I want to jump out of my seat as he’s divulging this detail of his process as if this were some kind of sporting event (because it kind of is in the writing world). I want to yell, “Hell yeah! That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout!” and maybe do a little fist pump or high five the blond English woman next to me. (I don’t, of course — this is England — but maybe after another few glasses I might have…) Because this is proof: not knowing how to do something and doing it anyway can actually be done!
Anne Tyler’s, “A Spool of Blue Thread” was the book she never intended to finish. Until she realized she could no longer live with certain characters — they’d become intolerable — did it become clear to her how to finish the book. Another fist pump; further confirmation that it’s only through having faith enough in “the doing” that certainty or a path towards it might arise. It’s true: drifting along in the veiled haze of not knowing but just doing it anyway actually works.
After the readings and discussions, the presenter takes questions from the audience. This is the part when I usually leave. In my experience, people don’t actually ask a question but stand up and talk about their strife or tell an irrelevant personal story. But the first question asked was about characterization and the answers that followed were interesting enough I stayed.
Then I remembered my own burning question. How do you do something when you don’t know what you’re doing?
I can’t ask that, though. That’s like asking, “How do you learn how to walk?” or “How do you learn how to chew then swallow your food?” It would have been like asking, “How do you write a book?” Which is probably what I’m really asking.
I don’t know how to phrase what I really want to know but the opportunity had presented itself. An unplanned encounter in front of the oracles, the gods, the ones on the other side of not only “How to Write a Book” but undoubtedly equipped to successfully answer “How to Get Shortlisted for the Man Booker.” I’m not sure if it was the anonymity of not knowing a soul amid the thousand-plus people or the liquid courage from a now empty wine glass, but I did not walk but practically ran to the mic. Not knowing how to phrase what toiled in the pit of my stomach was, ironically, the very dilemma my question posed.
The confident, brainy and beautiful presenter squints into the lights and points towards me, prompting me to speak. “Hi.” I say. Then it just happened — in the same way you run an extra mile without thinking — my dry mouth formulates the chalky question: “Aside from complete and total ignorance how do you endure the uncertainty of the creative process?”
I step back from the mic and watch them toss the question around like a hot potato.
After a brief pause Marlon James says, “Get up before your critic.” Then he goes on to say, in so many words, the old familiar mantra I learned in grad school at Goddard, “trust the process.”
Chigozie Obioma says to give it six months, whatever’s needed, then eviscerate yourself on the page.
Anne Tyler says, Let it come.
With each answer I am awash with relief. Suddenly I realize my question isn’t so much a question as it is a need; no less a need than air or water or food or shelter. I touch my hands to my heart and nod in gratitude.
“That was a good question,” Anne Tyler said gently and kindly as I went up to her to thank her after she’d finished signing books. “The very thing everyone wants to know.”
It’s not about the how or the way you think your work should look, Marlon James said when I made my way down the table to also thank him. It’s that feeling of not knowing, that total angst and frustration that is the impetus. Somewhere between what he was saying and my longing for an answer, my guts settle into a newfound understanding of process; a remembering. I remember now.
Uncertainty is key; a fundamental element to the creative process, exactly that which drives our work. The writing itself is just as much a mystery to a writer as to why she’s writing whatever it is she’s writing. In my case, all I know is that I have a need to know. Which brings me back around to a brief blip of understanding of what brings us to the page in the first place: that neediness of wanting to know.
Most writers I know feel the same. We haunt it and it haunts us: story. No wonder we write.