By Alissa Johnson
Not too long ago, I went for a walk with a good friend in the aspen grove above her house. The rain began to fall just as we turned around to head for home, and in the final stretches, she told me about a book she’d been reading.
An English teacher, she gets excited about a good book, and she had a lot to say about its layers and its relevance to society. I love her book recommendations, but I’d just spent the day writing. I couldn't listen to her description without comparing it to my own work:
• I think it’s going to have layers, but will they be expertly woven together?
• My story takes place in the early 1900s. Will it still resonate with today’s readers?
• What will she think of it when she reads it?
In a timespan of about 30 seconds, I convinced myself that she will read it and compliment it, but my story will never be as meaningful as the one she’s describing. (And all without letting on to my inner turmoil).
I know better than to compare an early draft to the finished books I trade with friends.
I also know better than to burden early drafts with expectations—better to let them unfold with as little pressure as possible so they can become whatever they are going to be.
In these moments, I like to recall a passage from Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing. It has been a while since I read it, but I think often of her reflections on starting a novel — that standing before a mountain of unknowns, she whispered the truth like a mantra: I don’t know.
I found that immediately comforting. I had already been teaching my clients and students that unknowns are never a reason to quit. But to turn “I don't know” from a negative to a positive changed the way I approached the page.
By the time we reached my friend's house, rain fell heavily and lightning flashed across the sky. I’d let go of the comparison, all by reminding myself, once again, that I don't know. That I'm writing to find out. It feels like taking these words--I don't know--back, transforms them from a reason to quit into a reason to keep going. A way to empower myself as a writer.
What about you? Are the things you don't know holding you back?
Here's a freewrite for you. Grab pen and paper and fill in the blank as many times as you can: I don't know.
When you have exhausted your list, look back at it. Is it possible you can keep writing without having all the answers?
Give yourself another few minutes to freewrite and reflect on the following: If I let go of the need to know and write anyway, I would be able to...
Let me know what comes up in the comments.