Thoughts on the thinking behind creative work, especially learning to write fiction.

Imagine a four-cell table.




What you know you know


What you know you don’t know




What you don’t know you know


What you don’t know you don’t know

This is the same table, with the attitude that governs awareness in each box.




Certainty confirms itself. I know what I know and I’m right. Belief that one has correctly identified what’s missing from awareness. If I could discover these things, then my understanding would be complete.



There is a world beyond awareness, yet in principle available, able to enter my consciousness at any moment. [None – this represents the unknowable.]

The upper left cell – what you know you know – is the safety zone. When you’re here, you’re on base and you can’t be tagged out. This is where you live when you’re staying out of trouble. School encourages you to stay in this box most of the time. If you’re in school and you’re writing something, the default assumption is that it will be in this box. But if you stay in this box, you can’t do creative work. When you write fiction, you do start, in some way, from what you know. But you don’t stay there, and what I’m trying to talk about here is how to move away from the upper left-hand box.

The upper right – what you know you don’t know – is what you might call the safety zone of the unknown. In this box you know the right question to ask. When you’re operating on the upper right, you can draw a line around your lack of knowledge. You can point to where it lives and say, “I know there’s something out there.” What follows is: Now that I know where to look, I’ll find out what’s out there, and then I’ll know more. Academic work that’s interesting starts off in the upper left, then proceeds to the upper right, where it ends by asking questions that promise future investigation and expanding knowledge.

All that sounds eminently sensible, but for creativity the upper right-hand box is a subtle kind of trap. The assumption that complete understanding is attainable, desirable, and even obligatory is a huge roadblock to creative work. If I assume that I can put a limit on what I don’t know, that means certainty “should be” right around the corner, and once I achieve complete knowledge I can live in the comfortably self-confirming world of the upper left-hand box. Though creative work is somehow grounded in what I know, it hinges on the belief that certainty is overrated, that not-knowing is limitless, that the unknown does not exist to fill in the gaps of my already existing world-view, but rather that not-knowing is a door to a far larger world than I currently imagine.

When you do creative work, you’re very aware of how much you don’t know. You start writing a story and at every turn, you realize how much you don’t know about the characters, the place, the action, the outcome. What you have to do is learn to not just tolerate, but enjoy this not-knowing. Above all, you must get over fear of leaving the upper left, and your goal must not be to get back there. You cannot answer your many questions simply by extrapolating from what you already know. The unknown is not a more elaborate version of the known. If you try to get the answer that way, you’re in denial, and you get stuck.

The crucial issue in creative work is which way you go when you leave the upper left box. Instead of only moving to the right, you must learn to move down.

Creative work happens on the lower row of this table, in the land of “don’t know.” It depends upon the unconscious. You write the story on the lower left. With each new sentence you discover something that you didn’t know you knew. The character says something: only minutes ago you didn’t know she was going to say that. She reveals something about her motives that you didn’t know until she spoke. There was no guarantee that the revealing moment would happen, that the new thing would enter your consciousness, but it did. If you’re going to succeed in writing fiction, instead of just being driven crazy by trying to write it and failing, you have to learn to trust this faculty. You have to come to understand that there is a huge, potentially limitless amount of knowledge-to-be waiting in the lower left quadrant. You can only bring it out by believing it’s there and moving forward with the writing.

As you write your way forward, discovering things you didn’t know you knew, what’s forever ahead of you is the lower right: the things you don’t know you don’t know. By definition, you can never draw a line around this and point to it. These are the things that exist always out of your mind’s reach. This quadrant of the table represents that which is intractably Other, the part of reality that is unknowable, about which we can say nothing. As I think of it, in this realm everything that is yet to be created waits to come into being. This is the truly unknown source that I am ultimately relying upon and over which I have no control at all.

Now and then, moments of discovery happen in this form: something suddenly moves from the lower right to the upper right. Suddenly you say to yourself, Aha! Now I see what it is I don’t know and need to know about this character, this moment, this story! That points you in a direction. Then you can start writing in search of that knowledge, again not by a process of conscious extrapolation, but by living on the lower left. Once you have the new question, you can work your way to the things that you don’t know you know, if you depend on your unconscious to tell you.

Amid all this talk about knowing, it’s important to say that writing fiction deals in a special kind of knowledge. Our experience of knowledge is supported by a confirming emotion: it feels right. You count on this feeling of rightness all the time to give you the confidence that you understand something, or that a decision is the right one. Knowledge in real life not only feels right, the “feeling right” is supported by experience of the world pushing back with consequences, telling you whether what felt right to you actually is right.

Though you can use your empirical life experience in many ways as you write stories, for example by locating the action in a place you really know, some crucial parts of story-knowledge are supported solely by your sense of “it feels right.” For instance: a character’s name. What a character really wants. What a character is going to do at the crucial moment of decision.

When you write fiction, you learn to trust your “that feels right” faculty even more than you do in regular life. In a story you are building a character’s whole life, and how the world pushes back against them, on the basis of “that feels right.” When readers then react to your story, your intuitions about life in the world rub up against theirs, and if they don’t coincide it can be disturbing. Suddenly you discover that the world you believe we all live in, the “way things are” that feels truthful to you, isn’t the same as your neighbor’s version of the world. It’s revealing, potentially scary, and it might cause your intuitions to shift – or it might teach you to rely on them with even more conviction. One character you inevitably learn about while writing fiction is your own.


You can download this document here: Know+Don’t Know