In Defense of Cluelessness
Author Spencer Wise on the importance of getting lost in your writing and how not to squelch the vital energy of your work.
Last month, I found myself teaching a session at GrubStreet, where I’d taken my first fiction workshop almost two decades earlier. I don’t get nervous teaching, but something about standing in front of these eager, expectant faces got me thinking about how I was back where I started, how the impossible came true, and how suddenly I felt like a total fraud.
The participants ardently wanted feedback and encouragement about their opening lines– were they any good? -- and I understood so well how they felt because I still feel it myself every day I sit down to write. The doubt doesn’t seem to go away.
So when do we earn this coveted expertise? I thought it would happen after publishing my first book, but standing up there in front of everyone, I thought: better ask me after the second book, or the third, or after I win some award. Maybe we’ll never really know what the hell we’re doing. When it comes to writing, I’m not sure we master anything.
It makes me think of the amazing poem by the recently deceased W.S. Merwin about the time he sought writing advice from poet John Berryman. It should be required reading for any writer. The poem ends on Berryman’s advice:
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
I wonder about this after most sentences I’ve ever written. I’m wondering it right now. Is this any good? You can’t be sure.
And yet, I don’t think I would’ve written my novel if I’d known what it was about, where it was going, or even if it was good.
The unknowing, let’s call it, can also be a liberating, productive space. We write to learn—to learn about our characters, our story, and even the shape of our plot. Let everything stay in flux. Let nothing remain so sacred that it can’t be changed.
Here’s an example: In my new novel, I swore the protagonist’s husband was a high school principal. I planned that from the jump. Then I started writing, and he suddenly turned into a beat cop, and it felt right. I could’ve gone back to the original plan because I put some work into that outline. I decided to barrel ahead instead, trusting that my instincts know more about good art than my brain, which tends to know very little.
Novels evolve organically and spontaneously. The less you plan, the better. This isn’t universally true. The fabulous writer (and fellow Bostonian), B.A. Shapiro uses her background in statistics to construct elaborate narrative charts and graphs. For her, it works beautifully; for me, it sounds like math. I don’t do math.
I love what Berryman said. You aren’t going to know if what you’ve written is any good. Embrace the disarray. Of course, that’s easy for him to say. For us mortals, it’s terrifying. Everything feels out of control, loose, and disorganized. But maybe instead of seeing chaos, we can see endless possibility. Trust that you’ll find the meaningful scene out of the chaos so as long as you stay open to the surprises that you'll discover within your own narratives.
In my younger days, my friend once had the bright idea to smoke way too much pot and take us on a midnight walk in the forest behind his house in New Hampshire. "A quickie," he said. Four hours later, I was planning ways to kill him. It was supposed to be a fifteen-minute walk to let his Jack Russell pee, and now all three of us morons were lost deep in the woods. This was before cell phones, so when our flashlights first flickered and then died, all we could do was keep marching. The whole time, my friend kept saying, “We aren’t lost.” I knew it wasn't true, but for some reason, I found it reassuring.
So I’d encourage you at your own writing desk to repeat my stoner’s guru mantra to yourself: “We’re not lost.” The tricky part is believing it while also accepting that you’re totally screwed (and it’s going to be fine.)
Maybe our writing-expertise fantasy is just part of a grander fantasy that we’ll eventually achieve some level of life-expertise. Nothing will feel arbitrary or fraught with existential dread. We’ll know what to say to our kids. We can confidently explain why this job or that partner. We’ll finally assert some control over a world that constantly outmaneuvers us and defies every attempt to be understood.
But as writers, I think we also love the gray area; we don’t see how the human experience can be explained in black and white terms. Our lives, like our novels and memoirs, need time and space to find their eventual shape. The more you try to force and will that shape into being, the more you might be squelching its most vital energy.
Maybe Berryman’s got it right. If you have to know, don’t write. But if you can live with it and if you can stomach the mystery, plunge forward. Paper your walls with rejections slips. Follow every stream, trail, and firebreak in the hopes of leading your poor, stoned, asthmatic friend (in this case, your novel) out of the woods and back home to bed because he needs his eight hours. Tell him the truth: We’re going to get there eventually, maybe not the way you wanted or planned, but we’re not lost.
Spencer Wise is the author of the novel, The Emperor of Shoes (HarperCollins, 2018). In addition to working at a shoe factory in South China, Spencer Wise has professional experience ranging from gutting chickens and selling ginsu knives to editorial work at Sports Illustrated and Time Out New York. Born in Boston, Wise is a graduate of Tufts University, the University of Texas at Austin, and Florida State University. His work has appeared in journals such as Narrative Magazine, Cincinnati Review, The Literary Review, and New Ohio Review, among others. He was awarded the 2017 Gulf Coast Prize in nonfiction and a Vermont Studio Center fellowship. Wise is an Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at Augusta University.