Often I don’t know. In our culture, this is conventionally seen as a weakness. At all levels of school we’re asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Ever try “I don’t know”? And if so, how was it received? In a job interview, “What’s your greatest strength?” answered with an “I don’t know” will have predictable results. But the truth is, for me at least, often I don’t know. Like when I’m asked to name my strengths, my mind does this rapid process where my strengths are equally weaknesses. Sometimes this is accompanied by nervousness, tunnel vision, sweating, and/or the very strong urge to be somewhere else doing anything else. At best, it looks like this:
Interviewer: “Hello, what is your greatest strength?”
Me, with confidence: “I can see the truth in many perspectives…. Well, what I mean is, I can’t find the truth, because if all perspectives have truth, then what is true?”
Dialectics are fun, if impractical. But we’re artists, you and I. We’re practitioners of the impractical.
True, we could accept that all perspectives are true and be okay with that. And that takes fundamental shifts in perceiving: what is true now may not be true next Tuesday, or may not have been true during the Triassic era; what is true for me probably isn’t exactly the same thing that Hildegard of Bingen called true. Sure, I can find some value in Hildegard of Bingen, and I do. There may be some overlap between her perspective and experiences and my perspective and experiences. But I am not her. Along the same spiral, what is true and important for the healthy development of a tomato plant isn’t what is true and important for the development of a human child. But a tomato plant is beautiful. A human child is beautiful. I’m beautiful. Hildegard of Bingen is beautiful. Today is beautiful. Next Tuesday will be beautiful. The Triassic era is beautiful. And all are true, all are real, in their own way. And please don’t infer that I’m comparing Hildegard de Bingen to a tomato plant. But if you do, make it a process. More on process below the “Unfinished sketch, 2013?”.
Somebody once said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the light,” and I think everyone should say that. To themselves. Not to other people. Don’t walk over to your neighbor’s house or call your uncle with that statement. Say it to yourself. When you are alone. Every day.
I like to practice the power of I don’t know in my art. I use it in writing. I use it in visual art. I use it in music. Not all the time, but a lot. Because, guess what, when you practice the power of I don’t know, shit happens. Is shit messy? Well, yes. But it’s fertile, too.
Sometimes my I don’t knows don’t go far. Sometimes they inspire a finished piece. Sometimes they are the the beginning of a long work. Sometimes they don’t make sense. Sometimes they are surprisingly coherent. Sometimes they produce confusion and questions (if you thought I was going to say “confusion and delay”, click here). Sometimes my I don’t knows lead me to a new way of seeing. And they always enlighten me. Always the process of I don’t know leads somewhere.
It’s not enough to say “I don’t know” and let it sit there. I did that for years a couple times. Wasted times. It’s not enough to say “I don’t know” and then walk away from it. You’ll end up washing dishes for minimum wage or doing something equally or more loathesome with large chunks of your time. You’ve got to dig into that I don’t know. You’ve got to open it up. You’ve got to invite it in, sit it down, steep it in hot water and drink that I don’t know, and then you’ve got to feel it moving within you.
You’ve got to engage the process of I don’t know. This doesn’t mean finishing every piece you start. Engaging the process of I don’t know means allowing the words, images, sounds, movements, smells, or whatevers you are working with to emerge and answer the invitation of the I don’t know.
Look, that’s what the culture has been doing to you when you put out an I don’t know, after all. The culture, working through whatever person put the question to you that you answered with “I don’t know” rarely accepts the “I don’t know”. There’s always a follow-up: “What do you mean you don’t know?” or “You know, you just don’t want to say it”, or “Well, what would you try if it didn’t matter if you failed?” But the really nice thing about going through your I don’t knows yourself is that you don’t have to answer anyone else’s questions. You don’t even have to answer your own questions; you can ask more questions. That’s process. Powerful process, creative process, can hear a question like “What concrete steps do we have to take to get to the solution?” and do one of the following, if it likes:
- Zoom out: “Wait, what solution? What are we talking about? And why? What about that mixture over there? It’s got sand and glitter and graham cracker crumbs in it! I love sand.”
- Destroy in order to create anew: “Concrete steps?” *Looks around innocently, pulls out giant hammer, smashes concrete steps. Plays in smithereens.*
- Engage with the process as expected, with digressions: This is the method where you play the game they want you to play, but you make up the rules as you go along. It’s like bringing a full set of polyhedron dice to a game of Candyland, and then spending all your time in Nana’s Nut Hut creating character sheets for each of the four colored, plastic Candyland gingerbread men counters. Without sticking to a system.
Wait, what am I saying? Be free. If you are called to create, create. Create freely. Let it go, watch where it goes, and once it’s gone around the bend, create the next stretch of terrain without fear for where that terrain will take you, or what comes after.