Friday, September 27, 2013

Barthelme and Not-knowing

Donald Barthelme:
Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how.... The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.... The not-knowing is not simple, because it's hedged about with prohibitions, roads that may not be taken. The more serious the artist, the more problems he takes into account and the more considerations limit his possible initiatives.
I like this. It links to some of the debate I've been having with Jim about the role of myth, and its part in explicating the inexplicable - those unfathomable mysteries of before and beyond and so on. But it's also very much about the nature of art. I guess art and myth are more closely bound than we realise - think of the Chauvet paintings, for example, which probably had a dual role in the minds of the people who created them. And this quote explains the power of art/myth in helping us understand the world around us. It's the roads that "may not be taken" that interest me, particularly those that "may not" because our instincts or our repressed feelings or our mores are impelling us not to. As writers, artists, those are the roads we should be endeavouring to walk down.


Jim H. said...

Great quote! Where's it from?

In my own writing, I find creative paths opening when I zen. It seems it's in the mornings after those nights when I go to sleep focusing only on my own silent breathing—shutting down my cognitive faculties, not worrying the problems/thought/issues I have to tackle—that my writing finds its way forward. It's a non-method method that has proven itself time and again. Is that what B is talking about when he says "not knowing"? Or does he have something else in mind?

Tom Conoboy said...

It's from a Barthelme essay called "Not-knowing". You can get a copy here:

I think that is what he means, yes. I try to do the same thing. Alex Keegan always talks about getting past the sentinels which prevent you from thinking about certain things. As a writer, you have to get in touch with those parts of your psyche where the interesting stuff is happening. Your zen approach achieves that. I try different things like writing blind (no screen), writing when very tired etc.

Jim H. said...

Cool. Thanks!