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No One Knows How To Do Anything (And Why That’s A Very Good Thing)

Stamp River Provincial Park

Here’s a radical idea:

No one actually knows how to perform any task in the real world.

It’s true, and I can prove it. This is going to get abstract and philosophical for a second, but I promise it won’t stay there. There is a real and true point here, and it might be one of the most important unexplored truths in the universe.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed the world was made out of the element of fire. He observed that universe is always in constant motion. That nothing keeps its state from one moment to the next. Not really. His most famous line is

You can never step in the same river twice.

As soon as you leave the river and turn back to look, the river you stepped in is gone. Those are not the same water molecules. Some of that riverbank has been worn away by the rushing current. I a scientist measured that river with extremely precise tools she would find that every single variable has changed. It is only our memory and our categorical brain that defines it as the same river.

What’s true of rivers is true of everything else. This might sound like navel-gazing, but it isn’t. If carefully considered it can have a profound impact on how you approach tasks.

Everything you do is like a river. Every single task you undertake is brand new, because the conditions have changed. Let’s look at an example.

Let’s say your computer is having hardware issues and you decide to fix it. You’ve done this a few times before so it isn’t entirely unfamiliar. But it also isn’t exactly the same. The processor fan has worn out a little bit more. The hard drive is older and isn’t acting quite the right way. Some of the connector pins on your video card might be bent that were fine before. There are absolutely guaranteed to be variables that have never had this configuration before. Even if you know computers very, very well you’ve never dealt with this exact set of problems before. Since computers are so complicated, there is a decent chance this precise set of conditions will be something you don’t immediately know how to handle.

It’s true of everything. Every problem is a brand new problem. Every task is an absolutely brand new and unique experience, and you don’t know how to perform that specific task. How can you? You’ve never done it before. No one has.

When we say that we know how to do something, we really mean two things:

  • We remember how we’ve performed similar tasks in the past.
  • We have the tools to attempt to figure out how to perform this specific task.

Both of these are vital to knowing how to perform a task. This is not trivial. It is very, very important because it has three  huge implications for how we view our knowledge and our skills.

The first is that you don’t know how to do something if you haven’t done it before. This is somewhat obvious. No matter how much you read about how to do something, aren’t you always a bit lost the first time you actually do it? Isn’t that always a learning process?

The second and even more important implication is that every task has to be learned while you are performing it. From scratch. You might have experience with similar tasks. You might have the tools to figure out to perform this one. But you still need to learn the specifics of this occasion. Every. Single. Time.

Sometimes the new variables are so simple that it doesn’t feel new. It’s literally true that unscrewing a screw on your computer case is unique each time, because the screw and the screwdriver have been worn down, your muscles are different, ect. But those variables are so tiny that we barely notice them. Unless, of course, the screw is stripped. Or you’re missing your small screwdriver and have to improvise. It’s often hard to know in advance whether this task will present new  challenges.

And other times the variables are huge. For some tasks this is always the case. Fixing a broken down care almost always requires exploration and combining skills in slightly new ways. It is even more true for creative endeavors. Everything you write is unique, and writing it is a brand new task that requires learning how to write this specific piece. You remember writing similar things, and you have tools to figure out to write this piece that you didn’t have 10 years ago. But you still have to learn to write this one.

The third and largest implication has to do with fear. So often we don’t start a task because we don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to write this kind of article. So I won’t start until I do. But the fact is, no one ever knows!

We enter every single task unprepared to complete it. Every single one.

Some of the preparation has to happen in the field. It has to. The past never equals the future, and no human brain–or computer–is powerful enough to precisely predict all of the variables of any situation.

The people who get things done understand this, if only on a subconscious level. They might be afraid when they try a new task they are unfamiliar with, but they realize that unfamiliarity is the constant state of things. It is an absolute given in a universe made out of fire.

So they bloody do it anyway.

Dream of A Thousand Words

Shakespeare's words

Language wants to be beautiful.

Or hideous. Or terrifying. It wants to inspire you. Sometimes, language wants to make you feel sick inside. Or put one of those smiles on your face that just won’t go away. It wants to blur your vision with tears brought on by a spiky cocktail of emotions you can’t even identify. Are they tears of elation that all the joy in the universe cannot be contained, or sadness that all of it, that everything, has to end? You don’t have to know. You just have to feel.

Language is just like us. Is this any surprise? We created it. We brought it to life so it could carry buckets of meaning from one person’s well to satiate the thirst of another. But like any child it has grown beyond the selfish, small minded needs of its parents. It has its own needs, now. It still serves and assists us, but we are foolish to think it will do exactly as we wish just because it is ours.

Language wants to be a hundred billion things, just like we do. And just like us, there is only one thing it does not wish to be. Only one, though there are many ways to describe it. It does not wish to be boring. It does not wish to be meaningless. It longs desperately to matter. To be significant.

So why is this so rarely the case? Why is almost every use of language, every time, trite and stilted and dull? For exacty the same reason most of us never fulfill our dreams.

Language is afraid.

It is afraid of standing out from the crowd. If it sounds like all the other language, then no one will call it out. No one will point and laugh at it for wearing that lurid metaphor in public. No one will falsely crown it prom queen just to pour blood on its head.

It watches other language getting out there, strutting its eccentricities with pride, and longs desperately to be like that. But no. The scorpion sting of rejection always threatens.

It is afraid of trying too hard. Significance is difficult. Language isn’t lazy, it tells itself. It just never seems to have energy left at the end of the day. Who does? It wants to flow into the nooks and channels already carved out for it. Sometimes it starts out with huge ambitions. It tries to be beautiful and magnificent and glorious, but once it spreads out on the page it is dull. It has to exercise its way into shape. It has to hone and cut and reform itself, over and over, through failure after failure, to get itself right. Who has the time and energy for that?

Language is afraid to find out that it doesn’t matter. That it’s vision of itself as that quiet, beautiful poem, or that frenzied speech that purees the emotions of its listeners, is just a fancy. It can leave its raw, fermented dreams in the closet forever where no one will ever taste them. Better that than expose them to the critical tongues of the world and find out they were flat and bland all along.

Language needs you. It needs your fingertips and your voice. These are it’s appendages, and without them language can never dance. It can never burst into the wild, ecstatic expression that sleeps within it, aching to escape. It might look dull and insipid when first you put it on the page. Don’t be deceived. Don’t give up. Your words aren’t boring and meaningless. They just aren’t done yet. They are just afraid to be what they wish so desperately to be.

Just like you.

Pages, Empty and Filled

Pen and notebook

We have so very many notebooks.

Ratty spiral notebooks in primary colors with the springs distended, half of them with front covers torn or missing entirely. Marble composition books that would fit in a fourth grade classroom. Well-loved Moleskines full of fiction. A host of interesting, more distinctive books: the one with the large copper rings and the cork cover, the green rubber Celtic rune notebook, the notebook covered in luminescent dragon skin.

We had a shelf of them already. As I’ve been excavating our rooms and recovering our living space, the notebook supply has spilled into another shelf, and then still into another room. There are dozens of them. Over a hundred. Almost none of them full, and not a single one of them empty.

For all that I’ve used computers for most of my writing since I was a child, these notebooks contain my dreams. Thoughts and prose captured away from digital recordings. Or during times when I chose to write by hand to give my thoughts the liberating momentum that comes from being unable to edit. There is a purity here that I–who am disdainful of the whole concept of purity–am unable to deny.

Some of the books are crammed with notes from the elaborate year-long roleplaying campaign I ran, which I secretly believe is one of the greatest stories ever told. A lot of it was planned and I have many pages of documentation on various hard drives. But much of it was conceived in the creative heat of those desperate few hours of cram-preparation before each game session. It only exists in scribbled notes that barely make sense even if you can decipher the liberties I took with the physical shapes of the Latin alphabet.

There are my dream journals. Every few years I try this again. I might be about to do it soon. I keep making noises. Eventually I’ll listen. Dream journaling is a strange endeavor, but what always amazes me is that when I read the chronicle of an old dream I can feel it. Like I just woke up. Dreams from my first journal of 15 years ago are clearer to me now than the one I had yesterday morning. So much of it comes back. The images, the strange unconnected emotions, the sense of logical unreality that is fully tangible, utterly ephemeral, and entirely unique to each individual dream.

I don’t know what to do with all of these notebooks. Some of them have plenty of room to still be used. But I always feel strange writing in a book that has the tatters of an old story. It’s like if I was to wear a single sock for a few hours, take it off and toss it in the back of the closet, and then years later start a new outfit by digging out the sock and putting it right back on my foot. Also, I have a strange relationship with my socks.

Notebooks still feel like magic to me. Even though it’s hard to remember when they really were magic. A place where anything was possible. A place where the past and the baggage of old scribbles and old ideas didn’t matter. Nowhere was it more true than on the New List.

J.K. Rowling understands. It was one of the most delightful moments in my first reading of the first Harry Potter book, which I have read many, many times since then. When Harry gets the list of school supplies he will need to attend Hogwarts. We see the list. Exactly as Harry sees it. It’s right there, in black and white, on the page. It isn’t tossed off and forgotten. It is spelled out.

It’s a moment where everything is real. Tangible. Defined. Harry hears that he is a wizard, that he is about to enter a world of magic and has an enemy and a destiny. It’s all so impossible. So abstract. Then he opens that letter, reads about the school, and sees that page of school supplies. It lists books. It lists the color and type of clothing he needs, and in what quantities. It lists parchment. It lists ink. This is a real place he’s going. Just like the other places he knows, only a little different.

It happened every year. My mom and I would sit down and look at the list of new equipment. It was always beautifully precise. 4 black marble composition books, medium rule. 12 number 2 pencils. 3 packs black erasable pens. I remember in 4th grade the rule size on the composition books changed. We were going to have to write more to fill the same number of pages. I remember going into 5th grade, and for math we would need a protractor and a compass. I didn’t know what either of them were until then.

It meant that everything was different. But not just for its own sake. It had rules. It had rituals. It had its own set of magical tools required for the exact tasks my new classmates and I were about to undertake.

The implements displayed the potential. The pens and rulers and specifically colored markets. I would lay them all out on the dining room table and look at them. Were the pencil’s sharp enough? Did I have enough folders? They were the tools of the trade.

But the notebooks had the power. They were the ritual space. They were where everything would happen. At the moment it was all potential. That’s where it would all become real. Whatever they taught me. Whatever I wished.

Notebooks are never going to be that magical to me again. I know that, and I accept it. So much of the transition to adulthood is a slow diminishing of the magic, as you fill in the corners of the map and leave less and less room for the dragons. None of what you put into a notebook can ever equal the endless wonder whispered by the unspoiled page.

We have so very many notebooks. There is a lot written on them. A chronicle in fragments of decades of my life and imaginings. But there are more empty pages than filled ones. I may no longer believe that my 4th grade teacher is going to show me the secret of the universe. But it’s out there, somewhere. Maybe it’s swimming beneath the surface of one of those blank pages. Maybe it’s just waiting for the moment ink touches paper, and I at last, after thousands of years of human thought and a single lifetime of my own searching, write it down.

Time Left For Stories

Old Clock

Most writers spend a lot more time thinking about writing, or planning to write, than actually getting words down on the page. We want desperately to tell our stories, but we find reasons not to do so right at this moment. There will always be time, we tell ourselves. Or, my story isn’t finished yet. When the time is right, then I’ll do it. Then I’ll tell my stories.

I’ve been helping to take care of my mother in law for almost 5 years, ever since her husband had a stroke that left him paralyzed. During that time we’ve become very, very close. This is a woman who has hugged Desmond Tutu and debated music theory with world-famous composers—and kick their asses, to hear her tell of it. She has two masters degrees. She had a radio show on the same local station as Jeff Smith of the Frugal Gourmet, and hers was much more popular. She once crawled out onto a thirty foot high scaffolding to fix a radio antenna that had been knocked over by a lightning storm. All of the guys, the rest of the AV department, were too scared to go up there.

She’s now 74 years old, and she’s been scatty as long as I’ve known her. She often loses words or forgets which stories she has told to which people.Some time in the last six weeks it has blossomed into full-blown dementia.

She can still get around a bit and make herself meals. But when she talks she stops making sense after about a sentence or two. Six weeks ago she was playing word scramble games, and reading novels she had never read before. Six weeks ago we had long conversations about etymology and the way interpretations of the Bible have changed during her lifetime and the centuries before.

She’s an old woman, and she hasn’t been in good health for a long time. But six weeks ago she would have said that her story wasn’t finished. That if she wanted to, there was plenty of time left to tell her stories. Now she gets dressed to go out to appointments she doesn’t have, and can’t subtract seven from one hundred.

There are a lot of little truths about writing, but only one big one. But it’s so big that it’s been said hundreds of thousands of different ways, and every one of them mattered. It’s been repeated over and over, and for every writer all over the world, of any level of skill or success or passion, it needs to continue to be repeated until you can’t hear it anymore. You already know what it is. Every writer does.

You need to get writing.

You might think you have time. You might think you aren’t done learning or growing. You might think your mind will be strong and clear for long enough that there’s no reason not to put writing aside for just a little while longer.

Six weeks ago, so did she.