I stood at the empty lectern, in the empty room. Dead quiet, but the echo of spoken words, questions, and laughter, still in the air. I had just worked my umpteenth book signing. The audience members, after chatting with the author and getting copies of their books signed, had left; to scrape the ice off their windshields and drive home to their hearty soups, red wine, and public radio.
The author and her colleagues, other writers and friends, had also left, after giving each other directions, and asking, “Should I follow you?” to the place they were having celebratory drinks and nosh. I had been profusely thanked, then left alone. I would say “abandoned” but that would imply that I was ever part of the thing that I had been jettisoned from. Of the tribe of writers I longed to belong to. I could see their campfires from the cold scrub grass, but hadn’t yet been called into the warmth of their circle.
I realized then that I never would be invited, that I had to bust my way in, announce myself, and that only one thing would allow my entry: the work. Wishing wouldn’t make it so. Waking up and hoping that the completed text had magically appeared under my pillow while I slept? Not likely.
I have stories inside myself that I need to get out and the only way to get them out is to do the work. The work all the other writers had already done. The hard work of building something brick by brick, word by word. The long silences, the blank white pages, ghostly and death-like. The terror that is whiteness that Melville understood so well.
Donald Barthelme, in his essay “Not-Knowing”, said, “It’s appropriate to pause and say that the writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.”
This is the constant state of being for the writer. Not knowing. All the time, not knowing what will come next. And being Ok with that. Accepting it, embracing it. You might have control over all the other facets of your life, but if you are a writer, you don’t have control over this. You might know the time and the place when and where you are going to write. You might even have a pretty concrete idea what you’re going to say. But as soon as you sit down in front of that blank page, that flashing cursor, you don’t know.
I’ve finally started my first novel. I know a little bit about it. But of most of it, I have no clue. I don’t know how it will end. I don’t know the title. I don’t know what my next sentence will be, or what my main character’s name is. But every day, I’m doing the work.
In Buddhism, we speak of sitting with things. With anger. With sadness. With hunger. With pain. With happiness. Sitting there with whatever it is, right there in your hara, that sweet spot where all strength comes from, right behind your belly button. We sit with our fear of what the future holds, of what our next words will be. We sit with it, whatever it is, the not-knowing, and then it passes, and we begin again, reborn in each moment.
It’s OK not to know, as long as we resolve to at least start the journey to find out.