Writing Advice: The Danger of Knowing Everything

As promised last night, I’m going to begin including bits and pieces of…well, I dare not call it wisdom about writing and publishing, so I’ll just call it my thoughts on writing and publishing. You down with that?

Well even if you’re not, here goes. My first “thought” on writing…

As with many of the ideas I’ll share, this one is a thought you can apply not only to writing but to life as well. So what’s my profound thought?

Never believe you know everything.

Now that might sound simplistic to some of you, and perhaps it is, but if it’s such a simple concept why do so many folks not grasp it? There are probably millions of writers out there, and quite a few of them believe they know everything. You ever meet someone like that? Maybe it’s the mechanic who, because he knows how many RPMs it takes to lube a crankshaft (and yes, that was nonsensical on purpose), he is somehow the profoundest creature in the universe. Or maybe it’s the little league hitter who stinks at hitting, and no matter how hard you try to get him to get his front foot to stop pointing at the pitcher, the little whipper snapper won’t listen to you. I mean, it’s so freaking aggravating! If he’d just listen, he might not strike out every stinking…

*clears throat* Okay, those were just hypotheticals, of course, but you all know what I mean. Know-it-alls. We’ve all met them.

"Yep, gotcha some loose ball bearings in your woozer valve..."

“Yep, gotcha some loose ball bearings in your woozer valve…”

And writing seems to attract know-it-alls in great number. I figure that’s because many of them were the smartest kids in their classes, or at least they fancied themselves the smartest, and this stunning lack of self-awareness has continued on into adulthood.

But folks, being a know-it-all can be fatal for a writer. Granted, I’m sure there are instances of famous writers who are absolute egotists. Jerks of the highest order. Paragons of pomposity.

But most great writers aren’t. Over the course of the last several years, I’ve interacted (online) with Jack Ketchum, Peter Straub, David Morrell, Ramsey Campbell, Joe R. Lansdale, and Mandy Patinkin (since he’s a Facebook friend, I’m obligated to drop his name whenever I get the opportunity). What do these six men have in common? Coolness? Sure. Suavity? Perhaps. Braided armpit hair? Not sure about that one. But what I do know is that each of the six has been gracious, kind, and most of all humble when talking to me. This will be a post for a later date, because it really is a different can of worms, but I can tell you that these people all share something else too: curiosity. Now that’s also another blog post for another day, but I mention it because it’s a symptom of their shared humility—a humility born of the knowledge that they don’t know everything.

Mandy Patinkin: Actor, Singer, and My Dear Facebook Friend

Mandy Patinkin: Actor, Singer, and My Dear Facebook Friend

And if they don’t know everything, I think to myself, how much is there that I don’t know?

The answer? Lots.

In fact, the more I live, the more I realize I don’t know. And that’s a good thing. No one is as humble as a truly curious author. Because a curious and humble author will open his mind to learning about things he knows nothing about. He will admit that there are others who know more than he does. About everything. And he will also know that his writing is not perfect. And it will never be perfect.

If David Morrell is humble--and he is--then you sure as heck should be too

If David Morrell is humble–and he is–then you sure as heck should be too

I’m sorry to break that to some of you. If you’re harboring the notion that you’re a completely finished product as a writer, please tell me your name. That way I can make sure not to buy your books. Because smugness shows in one’s writing. So does the belief that everything a writer writes is perfect. Because when a writer sees himself as too big or too perfect for criticism, that writer has ceased to grow. That writer, in his own inflated mind, has arrived.

Folks, let me tell you something. I haven’t arrived. If I get a ten-book deal worth a hundred million bucks, I won’t have arrived. Heck, if I win the Pulitzer, co-write a book with Stephen King, and receive a commendation from the American Medical Association for my contributions to creative literary disembowelments, I’ll still not have made it. Though getting that commendation would be pretty cool.

The fact is, you don’t know everything. Neither do I. So we darn well better respect those who know more than we do. That’s not to say we should treat them as gods or ultimate authorities (yet another blog post for yet another day), but yes, it does mean we should realize that most great writers are able to say these three words:

I don’t know.

They’re easy for me. I say ’em every day.

Q: Daddy, what’s the distance between Denver and Egypt?
A: I don’t know. I’ll look it up.

Q: Daddy, why do you only have two chest hairs?
A: I don’t know. I’ll read up on chest hair growth in perplexed fathers.

Q: Daddy, why do I feel funny whenever I see a pretty girl?
A: (smiling) Well, I do know a little something about that…

You get the picture. I don’t consider myself an ignorant person, but if you put the things I know in one bowl and the things I don’t know in another, the “know bowl” would look like one of those paltry meals you get at an expensive restaurant. You know the kind? Where you’re supposed to act like eighty bucks for a sprig of parsley thrown on top of something that looks like it was regurgitated by a drunken antelope is a fair price?

"That'll be eighty dollars. One-thirty with tip"

“That’ll be eighty dollars. One-thirty with tip”

So the “know bowl” would be pretty empty. And the “don’t know bowl”? It would be so full the weight would reduce it to powder. Instantly.

And I’d wager that, no matter how smart you are, it’s the same ratio for you.

So stop pretending you know everything. You don’t. And better still, you don’t have to. What would be the fun in that? Where would be the discovery in that? In the vast scheme of things, you know very little, and that’s a wonderful thing. A beautiful thing. A thing full of potential and the possibility for growth.

That’s all for now. Sorry for rambling.

Take care, Friends.

And grow.