Writers and Uncertainty

Bernard Malamud once said, “Teach yourself to work in uncertainty.” I’d wager that at some point in the development of our craft, most of us have believed we had to know exactly where we were going with a piece of writing. In some instances, we were right. I’ve heard plenty of writers say they can’t begin a piece until they know the last move it will make, and in some cases, the last line. I’ve never been one of those writers, which isn’t to say that I devalue those who employ this strategy. I’m convinced there’s no one way to do what we do. The important thing is to know what works best for you, and if that means knowing the end before you begin, then by all means follow that plan. In the end, readers aren’t really all that interested in how something came to be made. They just want to celebrate the story, poem, novel, essay, memoir, etc. Readers care about the final product. Writers, though, are usually interested in the process.

For those who are still trying to figure out the means by which they create the best work, let me suggest some things you might gain by embracing uncertainty.

  1. Spontaneity. When we don’t know where we’re going, we sometimes end up in the most wonderful places. One Sunday last autumn, I said to my wife, “Let’s go for a drive.” She wanted to know where we were going. I said I didn’t know, but I felt sure there was someplace we were supposed to be and we’d know it when we got there. We ended up coming upon “Bambi’s Farm Market,” where we had a delightful time stocking up on fresh vegetables and other treats. In writing some of the best results come from such unplanned journeys.


  1. Surprise. When we don’t try to fit our pieces into predetermined molds, we often end up with surprises that startle us in a good way. We have a better chance of getting to a layer of truth that we didn’t expect to find when we don’t know exactly what we’re looking for. We tap more deeply into our unconscious minds and find aspects of our characters and their situations we never could have predicted.


  1. Freedom. Our characters will have more free will if we don’t try to determine who they are in order to fit a certain plot or concept that we conceive before the writing begins. More free will equals more spontaneity and more surprise. Just like parents eventually have to let their children make their own choices and suffer the consequences of those choices, the writer has to let characters have more control of their destinies.


  1. Association. If we can get comfortable with not knowing, we can actually know more. We’ll open ourselves to associations with elements (plot threads, characters, images, metaphors) that will deepen the work we’re doing.


  1. Texture. The lives we portray on the page should be complicated ones, which means they’ll often be made up of contradictions. When we don’t know our characters fully before we begin writing, we’re more likely to be able to think in terms of opposites. We’re more likely to see the opposing aspects of any one character, and by so doing, we’re better able to tap into what Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart.”

An interviewer once asked Malamud what specific advice he’d give young writers. Malamud’s answer? “Write your heart out.” I’d contend that we have a better chance of doing that—feeling and knowing more deeply—if we start out knowing very little. But Malamud also said this, “If the stories come, you get them written, you’re on the right track. Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you.”

Each writer has to solve the mystery of his or her own writing process. While you’re doing that, try not to be afraid of uncertainty. It can give you the freedom you need to deepen your work. Like I said, when we don’t know where we’re going, we can end up in the most wonderful places.

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