Revisiting Uncertainty

Uncertainty is a good philosophy Uncertainty is a virtue in creative writing. If you’re a writer, you’ve likely heard or read countless interviews of famous authors saying that the outline is a great way to kill the spark. That’s not to say that outlining doesn’t work for anyone. I’ve outlined some stories that I needed to wrap my head around before I got too far in to redirect, and they turned out fine. But it doesn’t work often.

‘Write to discover’ is the long standing motto for many authors, and I’ve adopted it for myself. For a person who usually avoids spontaneity, this seems a little out of character, but then again I’m not writing about myself. I have to figure out who these characters are. To do that, it seems easiest to place them in a setting and a situation, and then I have ten pages from which a plot is quickly being born without my knowledge.

Whether you believe in a Muse or not (otherwise known as Your Imagination), the rhetoric is all very similar. Us writers must sound a little insane to other folks, especially since we all talk about our craft the same way:

  • “I have to just write and see what my characters want to do. I can’t force them if they don’t want to go that direction.”
  • “Sometimes I walk around the house picking up random objects and putting them down. And that’s enough to get me out of my writer’s block.”
  • “Writing is hell. I’m a slave to the inner demons, and it’s blood, sweat, and tears until I have that story written. And then comes the period of self-loathing.”

These are not direct quotes from anyone in particular, but they could be. You’ve heard them all before. It’s a wonder they don’t put all of us writers in a room with padded walls and soothing music.

While I don’t buy into some of this melodramatic crap that characters have their own minds and writing is hell, I am of the belief that writing is a craft of uncertainty. Writers do the craziest things. The better you are, the crazier you are. It might be that there’s no right or wrong way. If anyone tells you you can’t use outlines to write a great story, they’re wrong. If a writer doesn’t contradict him or herself often, they’re probably not that great…but then again, maybe they are.

A good writer is one who has learned all the “rules” (grammar, style, voice, etc) well enough to break them purposefully. The best writers are the best rule breakers (see Faulkner), and this throws the whole affair into the worst sort of uncertainty that is also the best sort at the same time. So if writers seem a bit nuts, give us a break…this is what we have to work with.

In my mind, the best interviews I’ve read, and subsequently, the writers I respect the most, are the ones who claim to have no idea what the hell they’re doing or how they managed to do what they did. They suspect that they might actually belong in a padded room. Ray Bradbury was good at admitting this. So was Poe. Most of us walk around pretending we know what we’re trying to do and keeping the self-doubt hidden.

But it seems to me that this philosophy of uncertainty is a decent way to go about life in general.


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