I simply don’t know enough to write anything informative or insightful.
How am I supposed to educate and inspire without the wisdom of a sage? How can I write believable characters without a thorough grasp of psychology? When my research geologists drilled into a frozen Antarctic lake, were their machine malfunctions plausible? What if a freelance client needs an article exploring the ecological impact of biodiesel?
By some cruel twist of fate, I didn’t spring forth into the world knowing all there is to know. I’m going to go out a limb and guess that the universe played the same trick on you.
Fortunately, we have an ace up our sleeves.
And writers love to learn.
The Scarecrow’s Secret Gift
“My life has been so short that I really know nothing whatever. I was only made day before yesterday.”
Little did the Scarecrow know, he was quite a lucky fellow.
Zen master Shunryu Suziki stresses the importance of approaching life with a beginner’s mind. By adopting “Scarecrow Mind”, you open yourself up to the possibility of discovery. The entire world seems fresh and full of mystery; there’s always something new to explore.
The beginner’s mind sidesteps our preconceptions about the “right” way to approach a problem. It promotes insightful writing from an unconventional perspective. And it acknowledges that there’s always more to learn.
If we allow ourselves the arrogance of thinking we’re experts, we close ourselves off to new information. And the world is changing too fast to allow ourselves that luxury.
The rate of scientific discovery is snowballing as Moore’s Law propels us toward the singularity. But until we’ve all merged with cyborg supercomputers, we need to concede our incomplete understanding of the world and keep learning the old-fashioned way.
If you’ve ever made a mistake (which I’m absolutely certain has never happened), you’re familiar with the danger of assuming you know everything.
The three most powerful words in the English language are “I don’t know”.
By acknowledge that you don’t know something, you’ve given yourself a valuable gift: the opportunity to find out.
“Luckily, when the farmer made my head, one of the first things he did was to paint my ears, so that I heard what was going on. … he painted my right eye, and as soon as it was finished I found myself looking at him and at everything around me with a great deal of curiosity, for this was my first glimpse of the world.”
Do you remember when you were young, and even the most mundane objects commanded your fascinated attention?
There was so much to see, to hear, to learn. Every new experience taught us something about the world, so we opened our eyes and took it all in. We made keen observations. We asked endless streams of questions. We yearned to make sense of the world around us.
Then, we stopped.
As we’re socialized into adulthood, we internalize the misguided notion that questions make us look stupid. And no one wants to look stupid, so we stop asking questions.
Especially for a writer.
Great writers are inherently curious. They’re not afraid to ask “stupid” questions, and they scour the world for answers. They repeat the incessant “why?” of a child. They want to know how everything works, and by golly they’re going to find out.
So get curious, and keep asking questions.
Want to know why? Glad you asked.
You Know More than You Think
(and You Think More than You Know)
“Can’t you give me brains?” asked the Scarecrow.
“You don’t need them. You are learning something every day. A baby has brains, but it doesn’t know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on earth the more experience you are sure to get.”
Young or old, innocent or experienced, writers are some of the most well-read people on the planet.
We ponder literary masterpieces and devour dog-eared paperbacks. We analyze magazines and scrutinize blogs. We used to read newspapers. We study history, and science, and philosophy. We’re in love with danger, adventure, and romance.
We’re hopelessly obsessed with storytelling.
“You mean, you actually read for fun?” Pretty strange, I know. But if you’re a writer then I’ll bet you’re an avid reader, too. We can’t help it. We’re under the Imperius Curse compelled to do so.
With our noses buried in books we’ve lived a thousand lifetimes, inherited the insights of vivid imaginations, and had experiences others could only dream of.
We’ve absorbed a wealth of information from well-researched content. The internet connects us to the sum total of human knowledge. Anything we need to know is available at the touch of a button.
And when we’re learning something new? There’s always someone one step behind, eager to benefit from our recent experience. Why not share the journey, and find out where it leads?
“If this road goes in, it must come out,” said the Scarecrow, “and as the Emerald City is at the other end of the road, we must go wherever it leads us.”
Next time you feel like your head is stuffed with straw, and writing would be easy if you only had a brain, consider yourself lucky. You know exactly what to do:
- Adopt a “Scarecrow Mind”, and open yourself to the possibility of discovery.
- Practice childlike insatiable curiosity. Don’t be afraid to ask “stupid” questions.
- Realize that you know more than you think. You’re a writer, after all.
Have you ever felt like your head was full of straw? How did you get through it? Share your experience in the comments.
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