In a 1985 essay called “Not-Knowing,” the writer Donald Barthelme noted that a writer “is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.” [The Georgia Review, Vol. 39, no. 3, Fall, 1985, pages 509-522] Why? Writing a science textbook is an act of explaining, and writing a news article about a crime is reporting. But writing poetry, memoir, and fiction are acts of creating—starting from the blank page. Creating requires imagining, exploring, without any preconceived notion of what you’re going to find—or to put it more precisely, what’s going to reveal itself to you. To me, it’s a process of paying attention not to my own thoughts, but to the constant “show-and-tell” of the world.
Let me share an example. I’d been working on one of the stories in my collection Consecration Pond for numerous drafts, “listening” to the narrator, Gus, tell me his story. But now I was stuck. Gus had told me what had happened, but he hadn’t told me why it mattered—what the point of his story was. I’d been listening for hours without insight, and now it was late afternoon. Autumn. The sun would be down soon. So I put on my coat and went for a walk.
As I walked, I didn’t force myself to think of Gus or try to hear his voice. Instead, I paid attention to the crunch of dry leaves at my feet, the colors of the trees, the nip of the breeze. And then, suddenly, the sound of dozens of Canada geese filled the air. I looked up, waiting, until there they were, overhead, seemingly more than a hundred, filling the sky with their precise and spectacular rows of wings and outstretched necks and their bright, loud sound. I watched until they’d flown out of sight. And in the silence that followed, I knew: Gus had seen and heard them, too. They’d told him—and now me—why his story mattered. I went home and, with this gift from a flock of geese, began again.
My lesson? Creativity doesn’t begin and end with me—my unique talent, my focused effort, my solitary mind. As Mary Oliver reminds us in her poem “Wild Geese,” the world offers itself to your imagination. So next time you’re stuck, try this: Close the laptop, put on your coat and shoes, go outdoors, and see and hear the show-and-tell of the world.