Constraints And The Opposite Of Not Knowing

When I was a kid it seemed that the worst thing that could befall an individual was not to know something. You were ignorant, excluded. The sheer number of times I or someone I knew would claim to know about something someone else was talking about (but not be able to explain it to anyone else) was truly amazing. There was a pain to be associated with not knowing, it was a social pain, a stigma and as a kid I felt it intensely.

I came to realise that my teachers were much better than my peers at explaining what they wanted from me. They gave me detailed descriptions of what they wanted and (for the most part) I complied. It is as true of TAFE (where I’m currently studying Business and Information Technology courses) as it was of high school. University was another beast entirely – sure they gave you strict formatting and referencing guidelines and frameworks within which to consider things, but ultimately your conclusions and your prose were your own. Sometimes this freedom seemed empowering – I could follow my whims, like the time I used a communications subject as an excuse to wax lyrical about soap operas – but other times it seemed too much freedom and I didn’t know where to start.

There’s a huge difference between knowing you could do anything and actually doing something. Doing something is grounded in specifics – specific ideas, specific actions. We have a word for this and I’m sure you’ve heard me use a lot. They’re called constraints. You might know them as guidelines or parameters. They nudge you in a direction and you can follow the flow of that direction or fight against, but either way you have a starting point.

Like that Robert Frost poem, we have to realise that some actions and directions preclude other actions and directions. By deciding to turn left, we – consciously or unconsciously – decided not to turn right. It gives us a direction and an identity, we choose certain mediums and certain modes of expression. We become known as a poet or a portrait painter or a blogger or… whatever.

The alternative is to be overwhelmed by choice and stalled by inaction.

The thing I learnt as an adult which escaped me as a kid is that there actually isn’t much to be gained by pretending to know things. All you really know is what you don’t know and even then it’s usually only the tip of some larger iceberg. So learn, try, play.

It is my hope to adopt a two prolonged approach to my creativity. Firstly to actively work on the creation of creative works. But secondly – and perhaps even more importantly – to practice, to play, to experiment. To practice making marks with a brush or pencil or a stick of charcoal just to better understand the medium, to better understand my own preferences as an artist and my personal visual language. To take some prose and rewrite it – perhaps without the letter ‘e’, or by using a thesaurus to change every third word. Just to see how it reads, how it sounds. Just to get a sense of what else is possible.

2 comments… add one
  • I was in the same boat. Then it took me exactly 3.5 seconds into my career as a journalist to realise that pretending to know got me exactly nowhere. Literally. So I started asking the dumbest questions I could think of – and I’ve never looked back. Good luck with your experimenting!

  • When I started teaching, I realized that teachers don’t know everything. They pretend they do because they’re the authority figure and don’t want to appear weak. I quickly learned that I could confound and confuse any student with a barage of words that meant nothing but sounded like something. After doing that a few times, I gave up pretense and started saying “I don’t know. I’ll check it out and get back to you.” Recently, when “I don’t know” I had a student who Googled it on her phone and got the answer right away. Gotta love technology.

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