Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Joy of Creative Ignorance: Embracing Uncertainty In Your Day-to-Day

I was struck recently by a comment on my site:

“There is really no prescription for creative work, I heard a writer say the other day that he sits down at the keyboard and the first thing he says to himself is ‘I don’t know.’” — Geoff Talbot

That writer sounds like a wise man to me. All too often, when we start work, we bring too much knowledge, too many preconceptions about how we expect the work to turn out. So many, in fact, that we end up cramping our imagination to fit our expectations, instead of allowing it to surprise us with something unexpected.

And as we know, that unexpected “something” is the source of creative magic. Too much knowledge, not enough ignorance, and creativity will be conspicuous by its absence.

That’s not to say there’s no place for knowledge, skills, and experience. As a creative pro, we couldn’t operate without these. But when we start a new piece of work, we need to look at it with fresh eyes, set aside our assumptions and open our minds to fresh sources of inspiration. We sometimes need to embrace a bit of uncertainty and creative ignorance.

This isn’t a new idea. Keats famously wrote of “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Jonathan Fields wrote an entire book on the fact that uncertainty is integral to creativity, and the need for creators to tolerate and even “exalt” uncertainty.

But it’s not always easy to feel the power of negative capability, or the joy of creative ignorance, when you’re faced with an empty screen, canvas, or stage, and the voice of doubt starts nagging from the back of your mind. At that moment, it’s only human to reach for any kind of certainty, to relieve the pressure.

And the pressure is more intense if you’re a creative professional. When clients pay for a professional, they expect to hire someone who knows what they are doing. How many of us would feel comfortable explaining to a prospective client that “It’s really important that I don’t completely know what I’m doing on this project”?

It’s a catch-22: the obligation to deliver “results” makes it harder to stay in that creative headspace of “not knowing” long enough for truly creative results to emerge.

Flipping fear into the joy of ignorance

Ignorance can be scary. But it can also be a source of curiosity, excitement, and even entertainment. Whenever I feel myself cramping my imagination by wanting too much knowledge and certainty, I remember these words from the poet Philip Larkin:

To write a poem is a pleasure: sometimes I deliberately let it compete in the open market, so to speak, with other spare-time activities, ostensibly on the grounds that if a poem isn’t more entertaining to write than listening to records or going out it won’t be entertaining to read.

My own best attempts at writing poetry generally happen when I recall Larkin’s pleasure principle, and admit to myself up front that I have no idea what will emerge from the writing session.

Instead of putting pressure on myself, or trying to predict the outcome, I simply look forward to seeing what happens – the same way I look forward to watching a movie or football game. Somehow, this makes the process more entertaining and enjoyable. And of course, that’s when the door is most likely to open to the unexpected.

Next time you feel too much pressure to know the creative outcome before you start work, use Larkin’s “open market” technique to rediscover the joy of creative ignorance:

  1. Ask yourself whether other activities (such as watching TV, surfing the web, or goofing off with friends) would really be more enjoyable than creating. Wouldn’t you miss the feeling of being in your creative zone?
  2. Relieve yourself of all responsibility for the creative outcome – it’s the job of your imagination to entertain you, by surprising you with something unexpected.
  3. Show up at your workplace with the same sense of pleasurable anticipation you would bring to watching a movie, and start playing around with your materials, just to see what happens.

“Yes but I have a client deadline,” you may say. “Not delivering is not an option.”

Here are two variations on the technique that may help:

A. At stage 1 pretend you don’t have to do the work. This can be surprisingly effective, even though you know you’re pretending!

B. Remind yourself that, ultimately, you don’t have to work as a creative pro. You could always go to work in a bank. Remember what made you choose this path, instead of a more humdrum existence. Chances are it had something to do with the joy of creative discovery…

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Over to you:

How important is “not knowing” to your creative process?

How do you connect with the joy of creative ignorance?

More insights on: Creative Blocks, Motivation

Mark McGuinness

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Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach. He is the author of Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success, and the free course for creative professionals, The Creative Pathfinder.
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