A Northwest Based Literary Journal

On The Importance of Not Knowing, by Pamela Schmid

I hold a little green stem in my hand, a stem attached to a puffball.

I blow. The seeds scatter like stars, like an entire galaxy. I place my fingers on the keyboard. I begin to type.

The air bristles with feathery seeds. One dances into my line of vision. It glows against the sky and for some ineffable reason, I’m captivated.

I follow it, without any idea where it’s leading me.

Did you know that a single dandelion seed can travel as far as five miles from its starting point? Look closely, and there’s a lone figure streaking after it—yep, that’s me—splashed with mud, snapping bracken, scratched by tall grasses, desperate not to let that seed get away.

Sometimes I want so badly to nudge the seed along, to dictate its direction and speed. I want to know where I’ll wind up and when, and whether I should bring a jacket.

Actually, this happens most of the time. The truth is, I prefer to run the show—in my work life, as a mother and wife and writer. I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way.

The unknown makes me squirm. Yet without it, my writing stalls. As much I wish it were different, the unknown is my primary source of momentum. Countless times a day, I have to make peace with the inconvenience of not knowing where I’m headed.

In Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland plumb the topic of uncertainty. Fears, they argue, arise when vision races ahead of execution. Yet uncertainty is an inherent part of the creative process.

“Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending,” the authors write. “The risks are obvious: You may never get to the end of a sentence at all—or having gotten there, you may not have said anything.” But as artists we must give ourselves this room. We need the freedom to sit with our uncertainty and recognize its potential.

And there is potential. I learned this a few years ago, when I began a morning writing practice—out of necessity, because I couldn’t figure out any other way to squeeze it in. Each day, I woke up to my 5:30 alarm and stumbled half-asleep to my computer. Often it wasn’t until I began writing that I settled on a subject—a memory, or obsession, or fear. An hour later, I’d pecked out 500 words or so, and the next day I stumbled back to peck out 500 more. I continued this day after day. Sometimes, I wandered into briar patches, surrounded by paragraphs of drivel. But more often, I landed in places where the terrain felt familiar-but-not, uncomfortable but also revealing connections between things—experiences, ideas—that seemed to have little in common. Those connections spurred me to keep going, to find more flowers radiating galaxies of seeds.

I churned out essays I didn’t know I had inside me. And a couple years after my obsessions first went windborne, I’d churned out a 300-page manuscript.

When something sparks our interest, we need to follow it. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in Creativity: “To free up creative energy, we need to let go and divert some attention from the pursuit of predictable goals … and instead explore the world around us on its own terms.”

I’ve made peace with uncertainty, albeit a grudging and uneasy peace. It comes down to faith, I think, to trusting that only in letting go can we let the thermals carry us.

 

Pamela Schmid’s essay “The Emperor,” was published in TLR #5, which came out Dec. 1. She lives with her husband and son in St. Paul, Minnesota. She holds an MFA degree from Ham­line University, and her essays have appeared in River Teeth, Sycamore Review, Sliver of Stone and elsewhere. Currently, she serves as the nonfiction editor at Sleet magazine. Read more of her work at pamelaschmid.com.

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