Writing with uncertainty
Making the case for not quite knowing what you are doing
I don’t always finish the Substack posts that I start to write. As logic would suggest, it’s far easier to abandon short bits of writing. If they don’t quite work out, it doesn’t feel like too much time or effort has been wasted. Longer pieces are much more difficult to drop. They are likely to be persevered with for longer and the problems struggled through.
As well as being less easy to abandon, longer form writing brings with it greater uncertainty. The longer the piece of writing the greater the sense of not-knowing where things will end up or how they will turn out. You can’t know of it will work out or, if it does, then where it might lead. Writing always seems to bring uncertainty, and not just about its reception but also about its form, direction and content.
In the above interview Frank Kermode observes that even reviews seem impossible to write when he first begins. Even for the most experienced writer like Kermode, who wrote over 200 pieces for the LRB alone, there is a sense of not knowing if or how a piece can be finished when the writing begins. It is often thought that the scratching of marks on the page brings solidity, yet writing brings with it uncertainty too. Uncertainty is a prerequisite for any solidity that might follow the process.
In a handful of interviews I’ve heard Ian Rankin describe the way he maintains a sense of uncertainty during the writing of his novels. When he sets out he has little idea how the story will end. He leaves the certainty until very late in the process, sometimes until the book is nearly complete. It keeps the writing fresh for him whilst also ensuring he maintains the mystery. His accounts have the feel of tightrope walking, but he actually indicates he trusts himself to be able to find a way of concluding the book (if not quite resolving it - he often leaves things with some openendedness).
There may be something to be said for not knowing if a piece of writing will work out. That’s the risk. It’s also the challenge. It might be that uncertainty helps the writing process. Knowing it might fail or that it might be not be completable is part of the creative process.
Writers are expected to be certain about things and to know where their sentences are heading. I suspect that is mostly a result of a final sheen produced in the latter stages. Seeming certainty and any smoothness of direction are unlikely to have existed before the writing commenced.
There is perhaps a form of motivation to be found in the unknown and in the shakiness of the early stages of a piece of writing. I recall Stuart Elden saying on his blog (and possibly also in an interview) that he wouldn’t be able to start a book project if he knew what he was going to find or what he might say about the subject. Certainty, it seems, would erode the motivation to write. It is learning and discovery within unknown spaces that work to drive things on. It is easy to see why writing about something you don’t yet know is far more appealing than writing about something with which you are already familiar. The former makes for a more interesting endeavor whereas the latter has the benefit of feeling safe even if it might be demotivating. The question here is why write something if you already know the outcome. This makes writing central to discovery and also to thinking.
This is what the writer Irina Dumitrescu had to say in a recent post (see the above link) on The Process Substack:
‘I spent this morning writing a thousand words for me. For a project that is only a dream right now and that may never come to exist. For a project that may please nobody else. But the thought of it pleased me, and so I gave it half a day.’
That passage and the longer reflection it is taken from express the appeal of working on something that might not be realisable. The mere chance of its future existence (in an unpredictable form) becomes a motivating force in itself. The above passage captures the sense of a writing project’s uncertain outcome and the enjoyment and reward to be found in the risk of writing something that might never be completed.
Intimidating as it might be, the unknown endpoint might be both a draw and motivator for writing. Accepting this and writing with, rather than against, uncertainty might have some benefit.
Of course, all this is to assume that a piece of writing solves that uncertainty when completed. That, of course, isn’t the case. Things are never complete, they are merely snapshots. Foucault once said:
‘I like to open up a space of research, try it out, and then if it doesn't work, try again somewhere else. On many points…I am still working and don't yet know whether I am going to get anywhere.’
As my writing plan inevitably calls for attention at the start of a new year, the image of Foucault trying things out whilst remaining uncertain of whether he will get anywhere is somehow encouraging. Inadvertently Foucault is making the case for not quite knowing what you are doing.
Greater uncertainty in the writing project itself doesn’t necessarily equate with greater fragility, they may even have the opposite relation.