Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

On not knowing what you’re doing

with 4 comments

Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs

A few days ago, I stumbled across the little item that The Onion ran shortly after the death of Steve Jobs: “Last American Who Knew What The Fuck He Was Doing Dies.” It’s especially amusing to read it now, at a time when the cult of adulation that surrounded Jobs seems to be in partial retreat. These days, it’s impossible to find an article about, say, the upcoming biopic written by Aaron Sorkin without a commenter bringing up all the usual counterarguments: Jobs was fundamentally a repackager and popularizer of other people’s ideas, he was a bully and a bad boss, he hated to share credit, he benefited enormously from luck and good timing, and he pushed a vision of simplicity and elegance that only reduces the user’s freedom of choice. There’s a lot of truth to these points. Yet the fact remains that Jobs did know what he was doing, or at least that he carefully cultivated the illusion that he did, and he left a void in the public imagination that none of his successors have managed to fill. He was fundamentally right about a lot of things for a very long time, and the legacy he left continues to shape our lives, in ways both big and small, one minute after another.

And that Onion headline has been rattling around in my head for most of the week, because I often get the sense I don’t really know what I’m doing, as a writer, as a dad, or as a human being. I do my best to stick to the channel, as Stanislavski would say: I follow the rules I know, maintain good habits, make my lists, and seek out helpful advice wherever I can find it. I have what I think is a realistic sense of my own strengths and weaknesses; I’m a pretty good writer and a pretty good father. But there’s no denying that writing a novel and raising a child are tasks of irreducible complexity, particularly when you’re trying to do both at the same time. Writing, like parenting, imposes a state of constant creative uncertainty: just because you had one good idea or wrote a few decent pages yesterday is no guarantee that you’ll be able to do the same today. If I weren’t fundamentally okay with that, I wouldn’t be here. But there always comes a time when I find myself repeating that line from Calvin and Hobbes I never tire of quoting: “I don’t think I’d have been in such a hurry to reach adulthood if I’d known the whole thing was going to be ad-libbed.”

John Fowles

My only consolation is that I’m not alone. Recently, I’ve been rereading The Magus by John Fowles, a novel that made a huge impression on me when I first encountered it over twenty years ago. In places, it feels uncomfortably like the first work of a young man writing for other young men, but it still comes off as spectacularly assured, which is why it’s all the more striking to read what Fowles has to say about it in his preface:

My strongest memory is of constantly having to abandon drafts because of an inability to describe what I wanted…The Magus remains essentially where a tyro taught himself to write novels—beneath its narrative, a notebook of an exploration, often erring and misconceived, into an unknown land. Even in its final published form it was a far more haphazard and naïvely instinctive work than the more intellectual reader can easily imagine; the hardest blows I had to bear from critics were those that condemned the book as a coldly calculated exercise in fantasy, a cerebral game. But then one of the (incurable) faults of the book was the attempt to conceal the real state of endless flux in which it was written.

Fowles is being consciously self-deprecating, but he hits on a crucial point, which is that most novels are designed to make a story that emerged from countless wrong turns and shots in the dark seem inevitable. In fact, it’s a little like being a parent, or a politician, or the CEO of a major corporation: you need to project an air of authority even if you don’t have the slightest idea if you’re doing the right thing. (And just as you can’t fully appreciate your own parents until you’ve had a kid of your own, you can’t understand the network of uncertainties underlying even the most accomplished novel until you’ve written a few for yourself.) I’d like to believe that the uncertainties, doubts, and fears that persist throughout are a necessary corrective, a way of keeping us humble in the face of challenges that can’t be reduced to a few clear rules. The real danger isn’t being unsure about what comes next; it’s turning into a hedgehog in a world of foxes, convinced that we know the one inarguable truth that applies to every situation. In fiction, that kind of dogmatic certainty leads to formula or propaganda, and we’ve all seen its effects in business, politics, and parenting. It’s better, perhaps, to admit that we’re all faking it until we make it, and that we should be satisfied if we’re right ever so slightly more often than we’re wrong.

Written by nevalalee

October 20, 2014 at 8:59 am

4 Responses

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  1. “Fake it until you make it” has been my motto since I began ad libbing as an adult and a parent. With children now in their teens the complexity is more complex than ever and like you “I follow the rules I know, maintain good habits, make my lists, and seek out helpful advice wherever I can find it.” What a lovely, truthful post.

    menomama3

    October 20, 2014 at 3:26 pm

  2. There are days I feel like a total poser as a writer. Then as a parent I feel like I am flying high. Wish those flying high moments in all sections of my life could happenon the same day, even if it is only once in a lifetime.

    notesfromrumbleycottage

    October 20, 2014 at 9:13 pm

  3. Initially I am too incompetent to realise I am incompetent. (Dunning–Kruger effect). Then I start to learn and I realise how much I don’t know and I head towards impostor syndrome… (faking it)… this is progress. Hopefully eventually I am able to appreciate what I have achieved and the chip falls off the shoulder. I suppose the ultimate his humble mastery, or something equally fluffy-sounding.

    “Fake it until you make it.” As a scientist I find this interesting, because in science it is important that you be absolutely honest about the limits of what you know (not that this is always the case). It is simply wrong to pretend to certainty when there is none, and hope it will come along later as results accrue.

    “Sufficiently conscientious faking is indistinguishable from competence”?

    I think Steve Jobs did know what he was doing. I just didn’t care. Clearly I was wrong.

    Darren

    October 20, 2014 at 9:54 pm

  4. @menomama3: Thanks so much! Glad you liked it.

    @notesfromrumbleycottage: Those few moments of “flying high” only emerge out of years of work—but they’re what they make those years worthwhile.

    @Darren: I’ll admit that I was thinking of you when I wrote those lines about Jobs…

    nevalalee

    October 22, 2014 at 10:24 am


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