“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance - it is the illusion of knowledge.” - Daniel Boorstin, “The Amateur Spirit”
“I was cultivating stupidity.” - Andres Dubus III, on how he wrote his first memoir
Andres Dubus III
Andres Dubus III's first memoir Townie started with a bully and a feeling. Dubus didn’t like the way a burly Little League baseball coach spoke to his two boys. The shout-downs and put-downs triggered Dubus’s defenses, feelings that ran deep. The award-winning novelist and author of the Oprah favorite A House of Fog and Sand, followed the feeling and started penning an essay about bullies and baseball. But that essay led him somewhere else, back to his boyhood when he tried to beef up his slight frame to protect his brother and sister and other underdogs from the neighborhood punks. It led to a possible memoir.
But Dubus had never written a memoir. A poet and a novelist-friend, Richard Russo, reminded him of the value of not-knowing, even when if not especially when writing ostensibly his own story, his own “me-moir” as Dubus calls it.
How do you honor a deep feeling and still find the Story, something that ultimately will point toward something true and real while also moving readers in some way?
To find the real story, Dubus says, “I was cultivating stupidity.”
Stupidity? The master of his metier cultivated stupidity?
It turns out, Dubus is not alone. I’ve interviewed, researched, and worked with hundreds of writers, creatives, entrepreneurs, and scientists to understand the mindsets, emotional attitudes, craft, and habits that help them thrive. Many of them, curiously, express some variation of cultivating stupidity. Artful stupidity counters curiosity’s ceaseless itch to find out and figure out. Artful stupidity’s a talent that can be cultivated. I think.
A quick-thinking fellow comes to a creativity consultant and book strategist with an idea for a novel. He had it loosely conceived in his mind and then outlined it for the consultant during. “Now all I need to do is write it, get it out.”
“Get it out” is not a fruitful mode for writing a novel, the consultant suggested.
“What is?” he asked.
“Draft to discover, to figure things out as you write. At least for the first 75 pages.”
“I already have things figured out. And what if I get lost?” he asked.
“Then you might find the real story,” the consultant suggested.
First-time nonfiction authors and memoirists often make similar mistakes. They write as if they already know their subject or know “what happened” to them. They write to explain and to recount. They write with a b-line to finish. It’s a natural defense against the inevitable chaos of writing a book, especially one that quickly can become emotionally or intellectually messy.
That b-line drive might be fine for a journalist or columnist with a deadline. But the heart of stories in trade nonfiction, memoir, and creative nonfiction merit ferreting out, teasing out, and detouring.
If we set out to write what we know already, we won’t get anywhere of much interest, and we also won’t take our readers very far from their cozy campfire of the known. Instead, many of us write to itch a scratch or to test out questions we’re living in.
Curiosity pokes and prods us to keep writing. It also serves to prompt accomplished writers and other creatives to keep pushing the limits of their own domain and field. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied the traits and habits of numerous creative people. In his seminal study, Creativity: The Flow and the Psychology of Discovery & Invention, he observes this:
“Without a good dose of curiosity, wonder, and interest in what things are like and in how they work, it is difficult to recognize an interesting problem. Openness to experience, a fluid attention that constantly processes events in the environment, is a great advantage for recognizing potential novelty. Every creative person is more than amply endowed with these traits.
Without such interest it is difficult to become involved in a domain deeply enough to reach its boundaries and then push them farther."
Curiosity is a hungry emotion that can get satiated. Left to its own devices, the curious writer could become an information-bloated blow-hard.
What to do? How to tame curiosity’s desire to know without squelching its necessary drive?
Dubus points us toward one possibility. Artful stupidity is the talent of tripping up the rational mind’s innate wiring to categorize, pin down, and figure out so the person can go on with his merry business.
Artful stupidity is good for the creative mind.
Author of Den of Thieves and Pulitzer Prize-winning James B. Stewart suggests that for the writer what’s most interesting is the unknown, not what’s known. He has a wire-tripping suggestion for people who want to write about their own experiences or about stories they witnessed: Ask the not-so-obvious question.
By doing so, the writer is not simply following curiosity to research and get facts answered. The writer now has tripped up what he assumes he knows and is off on a more challenging but potentially more rewarding trail - for him and, one hopes, for his readers.
Charlie Baxter lives and creates in this liminal space between knowing and not-knowing. His mind is a veritable storehouse of knowledge regarding classical music, esoterica, philosophy, and the nuanced points of writing and of reading fiction.
Yet, he designs stories rife with wonder. I tracked him down at a conference in D.C. a few years ago. Over coffee, I asked the author of Gryphon and of the essay collection Burning Down the House how he keeps tripping up his quest for knowledge, how he keeps burning down his own house.
“I ask questions. Constantly.” He had just delivered a smart talk on the lost of reviewing books in this quick-to-opinion thumbs up-thumbs down world. He looked around the hotel lobby. “Why do we have to have this conference in a hotel? Why couldn’t it be somewhere else? Why do we even need this conference?” He seemed genuinely not to know the answers to any of his questions.
Consider Susan Orlean’s take on why she chooses to pursue a writing project or not. The New Yorker columnist has authored The Orchid Thief (made into the meta-film Adaptation with Meryl Streep as Orlean), Rin Tin Tin, and articles on far-ranging topics such as why she's in love with Dick Cheney and why babies don't work.
Aspiring writer at The Woodstock Writer’s Festival, 2010: “How do you know when an idea you’re working on is worth pursuing or if you should discard it?”
Susan Orlean: “I know I’m onto a good piece of writing when a few days into the draft I don’t know where I’m going. If I know where the writing’s going, what’s the point?”
Orlean’s quirks and curiosities drive her more than the market. The market comes later, possibly when negotiating with an editor or agent. But mostly what drives her and other writers is the capacity to keep being cracked open to something new - even if not especially in our middle years once we’ve accumulated accomplishments and knowledge and, dreadfully, the pretensions to knowledge.
Imagine eager curiosity enters a room, sees a box, and instantly opens it and starts checking out how the box is put together. Now imagine curiosity has another cousin, more quiet and discreet. Imagine this cousin stands on the edge of a room to absorb the moment for a moment. In a way, this quiet cousin is a bit dumbstruck by the fact of being alive, even, and glimpses the box, just before curiosity gets his hands on it, and recognizes its elegant simplicity, the mysterious nature of box-ness itself, how a box holds and holds back, provides and hides at the same time. She doesn’t act at first. She absorbs.
This quiet cousin is our human experience that cracks us open not only to what’s new but to what’s new that matters. It is part of our human experience that unhinges our doors of perception, if we let it.
In the anthology Why We Write (Plume 2013), edited by Meredith Maran, Susan Orlean speaks of this cousin:
“You have to appreciate the spiritual component of having an opportunity to do something as wondrous as writing. You should be practical and smart and you should have a good agent and you should work really, really hard. But you should also be filled with awe and gratitude about this amazing way to be in the world.”
She speaks of wonder, and there’s nothing stupid, except artfully so, about that.
Frame each day as a quest. You only think you know what you will do and what will happen. But open up to be a little stupid about the moment or the hour, and your doors of perception might creak open a wee bit.
Write or create, question by question. For a while, at least, let the act of making or of writing be the line that leads you further into the woods. Then, when you’re sufficiently lost, send out a flare or find your North Star. (There are ways of doing that, too.)
Stop knowing so much. The next time you read something or someone tells you something related to a subject with which you’re familiar, refrain from nodding your head and saying, “I know.” Instead, imagine you’ve never heard about the subject. Likewise for writers - especially memoirists and authors of nonfiction.
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Jeffrey Davis is a speaker, consultant, and author who investigates the best ways to help creative professionals flourish amidst challenge on the quest for meaningful work.