Friday, August 14, 2009



Albert_Einstein_Head It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.

The first step towards knowledge is to know that we are ignorant.
-Richard Cecil

We know what we are, but know not what we may be.
-William Shakespeare

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.
-Albert Einstein*

I divide knowledge into three categories:

1) Things that I know.

I know a lot of things. I know the English language. I know how to tie shoes. I know people’s names. I know how to tweet. I know how to make toast. I know how to ski and snowboard. I know how to run a half-marathon. I know how to put words to (electronic) paper. I know how to blog.

I’ve also learned a lot about writing. Here’s a small sample:

  • Grammar and spelling
  • Showing vs. telling
  • Locating good writing sites
  • Reading with a critical eye
  • Using verbs instead of adverbs
  • Indentifying passive voice

In terms of writing, how does this apply to character development?

In the beginning of a novel, characters have a worldview built from years of experience. They’ve learned to run their lives in a certain way. They’re somewhat comfortable in their existence. They’ve defined their world in a box, and rejected anything that doesn’t fit into this box. Their lives aren’t perfect, but they aren’t willing to make changes. They think things in the future will more or less be like the past. They’re just like you and I, getting through their lives as best they can.

2) Things that I know that I don’t know.

This category includes all the things I’d like to do but don’t know how. Fly a plane. Fix a car engine. Travel faster than light. Get published (and become a bestseller). Win a gold medal. Find the best sushi in Tokyo.

This also includes life issues I haven’t resolved: Paying for kids’ college. Support my family as a writer. Pay for a new heater. (hmm…these all seem to revolve around money). How to not always get upset with kids’ misbehavior and cut them more slack. (there).

In my writing career, I’ve identified a lot of “problem areas'” that I haven’t mastered yet:

  • Point of View
  • Characterization
  • Concise writing
  • Work/life balance (who has?)
  • Maintaining tension and conflict
  • Working on multiple projects simultaneously

Your character also will have issues at the start: How do I pay the rent? Why is my SO leaving me? Why can’t I find happiness? Why do I always fail? How can I fight this disease? How do we defend our planet from the Xylorg attack? When will I get a promotion? What will I wear to the big dance?

These are all issues your character has identified, but they don’t have a solution, so they go about their lives knowing that they don’t currently have the knowledge or ability to solve these problems, but hope to at some point.

3) Things that I don’t know that I don’t know.

This is the trickiest form of knowledge. This is where “aha” moments come from. These are the deep imponderables. You can’t even ask the question, otherwise, it drops back into the second category of knowledge. Once you identity the question or the thing you don’t know, you’re halfway to becoming knowledgeable. They only way to examine this is to look at yourself in the past. What did I learn ten years ago that I didn’t even know I needed? I knew about “marriage”, but I never knew X,Y,Z about it. I didn’t even know to ask anyone. I knew about having kids, but I never knew I’d have to learn A,B,C. I never knew writing required so much work.

This is what scares me about my writing. What am I missing? What technique or concept has completely eluded me? Am I missing an opportunity to publish X because I’m working so hard on Y? This is why I elicit as much critical feedback as I can, because at some point, someone might explain a concept to me that I never knew existed. Someone might show me a new way to look at my writing that I never considered. I know that I don’t know everything about writing. It’s what I don’t know that I don’t know that frightens me.

However, this category of knowledge is the most glorious part of writing. Your character starts out with a set of issues and goals. As the author, you know what’s going to happen, things the character can’t even dream about. Perhaps your character starts out fighting an illness. They’re focused on that one problem. But what they don’t know is that a murder is about to happen next door. As the book progresses, the character must first learn that there are things they don’t know. They didn’t know their neighbors were nice people. They never knew to even find out. They didn’t know this illness has shut them away from the world. No one ever told them. They only thought about the effect on themselves, not on the world around them. So by the end, perhaps the illness is resolved, maybe it isn’t. But a whole new world has opened up for your character, one they never knew existed outside of the small walls they had constructed around themselves. This moment of epiphany makes your novel shine.

This is the beauty and challenge of writing, to break through the walls of ignorance and expose your characters (and potentially your readers) to a world they never knew existed (even if it’s just a fantasy world you made up). Your readers may look at their own life and wonder, “what am I missing? Maybe I should go talk to the neighbors. Maybe there’s a whole world out there where I can make a difference.”

Or…maybe a reader will say, “I love this book so much…maybe I should try my hand at writing.” And a new world opens up.

* quotes courtesy



  1. Hm . . . is that list an invitation??

    (AKA Jordan McCollum)

  2. I think thing the last part of knowledge you speak of, is the part that makes writing an art.


  3. Excellent post! You've hit the nail on the head - it's that last part of our journey that we must travel to reach our goals, and it's the hardest part. I have exactly the same concerns, and I bet most creative people do too.

    Keep walking that road!

  4. Too true, there is a lot of information out there to be had. But then, some part of me is waiting to break into that Secret Club of Knowledge that will make what I don't know I don't know something I now need to learn.

  5. The way I look at writing is an exploration of the third portion of your post. I do agree with PC, writing is an art because there is nothing exact about it. Its just one word at a time.

  6. Thanks for the comments.
    This makes me think there's a forth kind of knowledge:
    Things that I know now that I didn't know then.
    And maybe a fifth (thanks to Bob Seger/Against the wind)
    Things that wish I didn't know now that I didn't know then. :)

  7. Great post. It causes the wheels to turn and the imagination to run amuck. The philosophy of knowing/not knowing is like an Escher painting, no beginning and no end.


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