If you listen to most people, kids think they know everything.
I don’t think that’s true. I’ve never yet met a kid who thinks he knows everything (although I’ve run across a few who act as if they do).
The thing with kids is that they believe it’s possible to know everything, that they’ll keep picking up bits of knowledge here and there until eventually they have a complete grasp of all they need to know in order to have successful careers and even more successful lives.
Who can blame them? At every step of the way from pre-school through graduate school, they learn something and immediately move on. Times-twos finished, start on times-threes. Multiplication finished, ready for division. Wrap up the colonial period in American history and you’re off to the Revolution. Easy enough to get the impression that each stage is another dip out of the pool of human knowledge and that eventually that pool will run dry.
Fortunately for our egos and sanity, the awakening from that fantasy is slow and gradual. It takes most of us years to catch on, to realize that we’ll never know everything we need to know, that there is no such thing as the end of the line when it comes to learning â€¦ oh, and that pool of human knowledge? We haven’t even seen it yet. That thing we were dipping out of was just a mud puddle on the long road to reach the pool.
As it is in life, so it is in writing. Though we may be loathe to admit it, most of us started out as scribblers thinking that it was all just a matter of time, that in a few months – or, worst case scenario, a couple of years – we’d have this thing licked. Our apprenticeship would be over and we’d know all there was to know about plotting, pacing, creating lifelike characters, crafting strong narratives, building airtight scenes, producing realistic dialogue. And sure enough, if we were lucky, we saw noticeable improvement with each project. With every 1,000 words saved to disk, with every half-inch or so of manuscript piled beside the keyboard, with every story or novel finished, we had become just a little bit better than we were before. Somewhere along the way, we may have even sold a thing or two, strengthening the impression that the transformation was well underway, that we were almost there, that the world was starting to wake up and notice our progress.
There are almost certainly some writers who never get past this mindset, who never stop believing they will reach a magic point when they have finally mastered their craft – or worse, who think they already have reached that point. Many of these writers will eventually quit in despair or disgust, frustrated when they wake up one day and realize that the goal is as far away as it was when they were starting out, or furious that the knuckleheaded publishing world refuses to see the dazzling reality of their genius.
The rest of us go through a different sort of process, as we gradually come to realize that we will never actually master this strange endeavor called writing, that mastery of writing is, in fact, a chimera. Like the pool of knowledge we once thought we were drinking dry, it’s not really a place at all but a journey. The high points we may reach from time to time along the way are not the destination. They are waypoints only, signposts pointing to the next level.
The first step to writing bliss is to understand this, the second is to accept it. A little later, if we’re lucky, we finally come to embrace it – a process that encompasses many things, including learning how to accept setbacks with grace and handle breakthroughs with equanimity.
None of it is easy, but most of it can be quite satisfying, even – dare I say it? – fun. And it’s strange, but when you finally reach that point, when you’re not only committed to the journey but enjoying it, it’s amazing how much faster the advances seem to come.
By the time most of us are in late adolescence or early young adulthood, we’ve begun to realize that we don’t know everything and never will. After that, we either shut our minds to all further knowledge or become enthusiastic lifelong learners.
We also reach that point as writers, where we either tear up our tickets or trade them in on a boarding pass for the next stage of the trip.
There’s no shame in not knowing everything or in spending a lifetime traveling to a distant, ultimately unreachable destination. The only shame is when we turn in our passports before the journey is finished.
Paul F. Olson