At Christmas I was browsing in a bookshop for ideas for a present for my husband, and I came across a pamphlet entitled The Unknown Unknown by Mark Forsyth. I, of course, read it before I gave it to my husband – what is the point of buying books for people for Christmas if you can’t enjoy reading them yourself before wrapping them?
Forsyth’s essay is based on the premise famously set by Donald Rumsfeld, the American Secretary of Defense during George W Bush’s administration. He stated that:
“There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say that there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.”
Forsyth goes on to say that this applies perfectly to reading:
“I know that I’ve read Great Expectations: it’s a known known. I know that I haven’t read War and Peace: it is a known unknown to me [. . .] But there are also books that I’ve never heard of; and, because I’ve never heard of them, I’ve no idea that I haven’t read them.”
It was while running workshops in schools last week that I saw that writing, too, is an unknown unknown, because writing is, of course, an exploration, a foray into the unknown: an expedition without a map. We write stories we had no idea existed until we come to write them.
This is particularly true, I feel, when working with children who believe they are not natural storytellers. This might be because they have not had much success in writing stories in school, or because they don’t enjoy writing, or perhaps because they feel hindered by language barriers, for example. They panic at the sight of the blank page: this is where workshops can be so beneficial in unlocking stories, in demystifying the unknown unknown.
Last week I was leading workshops with children of all ages, nationalities and language abilities in schools in Istanbul. We were exploring such ideas as “how to build a character” and “how to get started on a story”. The children all came with a blank sheet of paper, knowing nothing about how they would spend the next 40 minutes. As I waited for everyone to settle down, some children told me that they were not good at stories and that they had no ideas. I told them not to worry and assured them that with a couple of prompts, they would soon be fizzing with stories. But really, I too had no idea what would happen. Maybe the children would go away with their paper still blank. Maybe they would be paralyzed by nerves or fear or a simple lack of vocabulary, as many of them had English as a second, third or even fourth language.
We started one workshop by looking at a collection of random objects I had brought with me, which included, amongst other things, a badger’s skull, a necklace, a set of old keys, an asthma inhaler and an iPhone box. I encouraged the children to choose a couple of objects and think who might own them, what they might do with them, where they might have found them or from whom they might have received them. Within minutes I had children telling me stories about evil mermaids who used the inhaler to make humans breathe underwater so that they could be lured to the mermaids’ cave; people who were drawn into an iPhone app and transported to another world; an old professor who collected skulls and who discovered that one skull, when he touched it, allowed him to travel in time. Soon the children were scribbling away, either having a go at forming sentences or making mind-maps or drawing comic strips of their stories.
Not one single child knew they had those ideas in them before they came to the workshop, just as I have never truly known how any of my books is going to work out until I sit down to write it. I have encountered characters that have reared up from the darkest corners of my imagination and often wondered, ‘Where did you spring from?’ and have found ways of resolving plots that I did not have in mind when I first sat down to write.
Writing is a series of unknown unknowns; it is, as Joseph Conrad says about a blank space on a map, “a white patch for a boy [girl] to dream gloriously over”.
The blank page can of course instill fear, and conjures up that dreaded phrase, “writer’s block”, but for as long as I can see it as that “white patch”, it will continue to hold sway with its magic over me.