Tuesday, 11 January 2011

On not having the foggiest idea

(it's not too late to start writing small stones - join us)

A couple of things to let you know about. I'm giving away a copy of The Productive Writer by the very marvellous Sage Cohen on my blog later today - just leave a comment if you'd like to be in with a chance of winning this amazing book. I interviewed her a few days ago, here.

And I'm going to be running an e-course on Writing as Spiritual Practice during March - if you're interested in the links between writing and clear-seeing, perseverance, praise and faith then read more here. It'd be lovely to have you accompany me on the journey we'll be taking.


I was trawling back through my blog Planting Words today and I found this piece on not having the foggiest. I think it is helpful for us to try and find that place of not knowing in order to write small stones - Suzuki Shunryu's beginner's mind. But not knowing (Keats' negative capability) can be an alien and discomforting place to rest. How good are you at not knowing? How often does certainty rush in (prematurely) to fill the gaps?


Yesterday afternoon I decided to make a path between my vegetable patch beds by putting down weed suppressing membrane and covering it with bark chip.
I didn't have the foggiest idea what I was doing. I didn't know if I was strong enough to get the five bags of bark chip into my car. I didn't know how to attach the membrane to the soil. I didn't know if the whole project was a waste of time - if my path would be a complete failure.

It reminded me of starting my first novel, Thaw. I didn't know anything about writing fiction. I hadn't read any how-to books or taken any classes. I didn't know anyone writing novels. I'd read prodigiously all my life and written poetry for years, but had never put more than a few hundred words together, never mind eighty thousand.

The only way to approach it without scaring myself half to death was by calling it an experiment. I decided to write 1000 words a day and just see where I got to. This is how I felt about my vegetable patch project yesterday and, now I come to think of it, about most of my life.

The path is finished - it looks a little raggedy, but it's functional. I'm rather proud of it. I'm currently working on my fourth novel, and I still don't have the foggiest idea about what I'm doing or how it will turn out. Isn't it fun?!


  1. This is so motivational, a nice kick up the backside - just do it!

  2. I wish I could have read this years ago Fiona, I've spent years being afraid, ashamed because I hadn't taken classes, I didn't have the right qualifications, I hadn't been to the right school... Thinking there was a secret to be learned rather than just getting on with it.

    Sam x

  3. My dad calls this "the creative state of 'I don't know'"!

  4. Great post, Fiona! I've never thought of it like that before-- to see the open possibilities and surprise in what is unknown to us. I will keep this in mind throughout my day. :-)

  5. Hopefully a GENTLE kick up the backside ;)

    Sam - you're not the only one. So glad you're writing now.

    Kathleen - love it!

    Jade - thank you for stopping by.

    Let us know how you're getting on with the challenge. Missing days? Noticing more? We'd love to hear.

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  7. (sorry, I left out my first sentence).

    This being prepared to stay with not having the foggiest idea, what the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn called 'don't know mind', is a really powerful lesson, I think, that we need to be reminded of over and over again. Certainly pertinent to this daily exercise. Well, I'm really busy and tired and I keep thinking I just don't have the time. And then I do it anyway. Then I keep looking at the little poems some partipants are writing, thinking I could try harder, set myself a fixed format, if not a poem. And then I think, no, I'll just write something every day, not too long, just a single thought or observation, polish it a bit, not too perfectionist. Stay open to what comes. Lots of different things. Not need to know quite what I'm doing here. Not think about impression management. See what comes from a fairly open-ended exercise - both for its own sake and for what it might seed.

  8. Oh, I would love to have this book. I am currently using "Writing The Life Poetic" as a personal textbook, working my way through it as if I were instruction my own course. LOVING the process. Another of Sage's books would allow me to continue my education!

  9. Thank you for this, and all links Fiona. Enjoyed the interview very much.

  10. That is exactly how I wrote my first novel - and it seems to be the same method I'm using for writing my second one, too! You don't always need to know where you are going to get there.

    Toss my name in the hat for a chance to win a copy of Sage Cohen's book, please.

    ~ Lori

  11. I love your playful, get in the garden and putter, and see what grows approach...dkm...is ultimately the ONLY thing we do know...mystery unfolds, like leaves and blossoms and then for only a brief moment we know, then they brown at the edges and become something else.

  12. I'm not much of a read the directions kinda person. It's do, die, get up and read the directions if necessary. But, yes, I don't feel so smart as the book educated ones, but guess what I learned? They want to help me succeed!!

    I respect your way and I'm with you, jump in - you'll sink or swim - you'll learn. The right path will be revealed.

    Blessed be.

  13. I love this post, it is indeed motivational. I'll never write a novel, but I love the way you 'just did it'. Great idea. I do feel a bit like this re the stones, but have taken a similar view. I just do it and see what happens. Seems ok so far.

    As for your path, all my gardening works out that way! I never draw a plan or work out which plant's going where but on the whole it all seems to work. It sounds as though your path will be just fine.

  14. Ahhh thank you for such a great insight. Would love to me out in the garden- but alas it is covered in snow. I would be interested in the drawing for Sage's book. Thanks again-

  15. When you're excited about something unexplored, the adrenaline kicks in and you find you can do things you once thought unfathomable.

    I can't wait to start work on the new garden at the new house we move into this spring! Don't you find you utterly lose yourself in it?


  16. Hi everyone, thanks for all your comments.

    I know I have found it really good just to write something each day - it reminds me I can do something - even when I don't feel inspired, or I feel blocked. Great practice.

  17. I too enjoy Sage Cohen's book called WRITING THE LIFE POETIC. The free giveaway will definitely be a lovely addition to my superfluous writing/art projects! :)

    Fiona, I would so love to join the e-course, but unfortunately I'm afraid nursing school will consume me! :( I hope you will offer it again (like maybe during the summer), because for me, writing IS like a spiritual journey. I've learned a lot about myself, my relationships with people, nature, and God, and how my own religion and spirituality are major influences in my life--how we are all interconnected.

    Also, I'm enjoying writing small stones everyday! :)

  18. I'm with Kim, I would love a copy of Sage Cohen's new book. Her Writing the Life Poetic is incredible. My copy is scribbled in, dog eared and shared ~ the mark of a well-loved book.

    Please include me....

    Now, to write my stone of the day....

  19. I have always been a Read the effing directions first kind of a guy... but NEVER ask for directions. I'm trying this stones things on my own. It's a little scary but at the same time Exhilarating.

  20. Thanks all, it's lovely to hear how it is for you. I've added you to the draw if you've asked to be.
    And yes, the course will run again - maybe May, and maybe Sep, but if you drop me an email I'll put you on an 'interested' list!
    Kitewood - I suppose some of the most rewarding things in life are that. Keep going!

  21. Thank you for the giveaway, Fiona! Please add my name to the list.


  22. It's fascinating what suddenly becomes interesting when you have to actally get down to writing something, now matter how few lines.