In Favor of Uncertainty

Yesterday, I began teaching a new writing workshop. In my advertisement I promised I would challenge participants to venture out of their comfort zone and face their writerly fears of failure, rejection, and above all, the blank page. The pitch worked: eight people signed up to confront the dangers of writing.

I started with a quote by John McPhee:

“If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you “just love to write,” you may be delusional.”

I think many writers agree that the hardest part of writing is simply dealing with the fear of failure. Probably, this is true not just for writing, but for life in general.

A few months ago I read an article in the New Yorker, The Plagiarist, about a young writer who stumbled into a major publishing success as a teenager (a poem he wrote happened to be selected for Best American Poetry). After that, he was so afraid to be exposed as a bad writer that he could no longer write. Instead, he started patching together stories by copying passages from others writers. Nobody noticed the plagiarism until he finally published a novel that consisted of recycled Ian Fleming, John Gardner, Graham Green, and other authors.

Few authors are desperate or stupid enough to publish plagiarized work, but I think many can identify with this young writer’s fear. Writing is such a magical, intuitive skill that every time you face a blank page, you have to reinvent the writing process. You just have to trust the magic will happen again and again.

But yesterday, as I talked to my students about writerly fears, I felt the teacherly fears creeping up on me.

I instructed the students to just write as honestly as they could, without worrying about how someone else would read their words, and then I offered a simple writing prompt: In fifteen minutes, write a list of things that make you sad, things that make you happy, or things you find annoying.

Because I am an egalitarian teacher and I don’t expect my students to do things that I don’t do myself, I joined the exercise. I immediately felt threatened by the sound of pens on paper.  I was paralyzed by the fear that if I didn’t write something sufficiently brilliant to prove that I really was a legitimate writing teacher – a list more touching and poetic than any of the students’ lists – they would all demand their money back and storm out of the room.

I always feel like a fraud when I present myself as an expert at anything. I’m such a self-defeating skeptic that I trust no authority whatsoever, including my own.

My teaching strategy is to assert my authority by relinquishing all pretensions and admitting that I don’t know much and just guess most of the time. I figure that if I don’t put myself on a pedestal, I can’t fall off it.

But it can be hard to pull off negative authority because people may conclude that I really don’t know anything. And they may be right. I assume most authority is a matter of pretense: If you successfully perform authority, you have authority. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there really are superior people who know things and who never doubt themselves. I suspect such people are delusional. But I’m not one of them; so I don’t know.

I take heart in what Laozi said more than two thousand years ago:

“To know yet to think that one does not know is best”

In a similar vein, I’d suggest:

To create art by not seeking perfection is best.

To teach by sharing one’s ignorance is best.