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Writing what you don’t know: The magic of uncertainty

How often have you set out writing something thinking you knew exactly what you were going to say, only to have your own writing surprise you and take you in a completely different direction? Robert Frost’s adage ‘No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader’ has been a popular writing motto for a while but I think writers sometimes go even further than this, turning our uncertainty into a source of inspiration and using our writing to work out and make sense of our experiences and thoughts. 

The Canadian writer Sheila Heti, in her book Motherhood, uses her protagonist’s indecision as to whether to have children as her starting point. At various points in the episodic narrative, she uses the method of asking questions and flipping coins in order to answer them, and these exchanges with the coins are written down: 

Are there other places I should be spending my time, besides in my thoughts?

yes

In my body?

yes

In my senses? 

yes

should I try to sense more things? 

yes

These exchanges are often lengthy and wildly philosophical, and the author allows an element of random chance to come into play in the narrative and test the possibilities of her ideas. This ultimately mimics some of the great themes of the book; that chance plays such a role in conception, motherhood and parenting that even when you’re sure you’ve got it sorted, things might turn out very different. 

It also makes for a great writing exercise when you’re not sure what to write about; grab 2p from your wallet or the change jar and see where your questions and answers might take you! 

The novel does not end with the protagonist’s decision; the entire subject of the book is uncertainty and the unusual narrative arc that you can produce by not knowing what will happen. A rare chance, then, for uncertainty to be celebrated and relished comes about through writing. 

The poet Jack Underwood, in his essay On Poetry and Uncertain Subjects reminds us that poetry will always include an element of uncertainty – and whatever you might understand your writing to be about, a reader might see things completely differently, based on their own interpretation and the ambiguity of your words. Underwood argues that there is an ‘uncertain knowledge’ in poems that we can understand not just intellectually but empathically; that poems act both on our thoughts and our feelings.  

We don’t have to know where a piece of writing is going to end up before we begin; this navigating, or finding our way, is often where the magic of a piece of writing arises. Caroline Bird’s 2020 poetry collection The Air Year is prefaced with a quote from the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer (translated by Robert Bly): ‘In the middle of the forest there’s an unexpected clearing / that can only be found by those who have gotten lost’. It suggests that our willingness not to know where we’re going can in fact lead us to the place we need to be. 

Bird’s essay in the collection The Craft: A Guide to Making Poetry Happen in the 21st Century (Nine Arches Press ed. Rishi Dastidar) talks about the place ‘beyond the poem’ where you’ve finished saying what you wanted to and so are less worried about good behaviour and what you think you ‘should’ be doing. Bird recommends that you take what you thought was your final line and keep writing so as to see what magic can happen when you’ve said the things you thought you wanted to say, when you’re completely free of your own expectations, or the need to show anyone. 

Do you set off on a new project with a certainty about where it’s all going to end, and what each step of the journey looks like? You may be missing out on the most fun you can have while writing. Call it what you like; getting lost, surprising yourself, experimenting, dwelling with uncertainty – as writers these things are a vital part of our work, and learning to harness our uncertainty can make for interesting discoveries. 

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Posted by author: Suzannah Evans
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