Writer’s block (1): Knowledge

Wittgenstein famously wrote “[w]hat we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence”, before (naturally) reaching the logical conclusion of his deductive reasoning and never writing again*.

It is an odd thing but it has occurred to me for some time that the more you know, the less you understand – and thus the less you understand, the harder it is to talk about it. To use a very simple example: I know that the earth moves around the sun, but to truly understand this process I must have knowledge of gravity, mass, the composition of the planets and stars, the origins of the solar system… And that creates another layer of things to find out about, ad nauseaum, until the only way to truly understand why and how the earth moves around the sun is to have an in-depth fundamental understanding of particle physics and M-theory. Even once I have done that I still have competing theories to look into, as no-one has yet discovered a grand unified theory of physics.

That one example alone illustrates my point. The awareness that I lack knowledge, as defined above, is a debilitating awareness when I want to put pen to page and create something – be it an article, a story, or a song. This plays a part – though not wholly – in the dreaded writer’s block. How can I write without knowledge? This crippling doubt only increases with more awareness, perpetuating the cycle and ensuring that procrastination is the order of the day. Sure, I could attempt to devour the total sum of human knowledge from when we invented fire to when we invented the LHC, but even in the process of attempting to understand that, more currently unknown facts would come to light.

If the act of public creation is an act of sharing an idea, a shape, a phrase – then how can I share what I do not understand myself?

The key word in that last question is “if”. An “act of public creation” (I use the phrase rather than cumbersomely list the ways in which one can create) is not necessarily an act of sharing knowledge, it can also be a guiding path for both creator and the public. One of the underlying tenants of the often misunderstood philosophy of Absurdism is that the final destination is not the point, it is Sisyphus’s journey that holds the interest and meaning. If I write a story about – say – the political situation in the Middle East, it does not matter that I do not fully understand the subject. What matters is how it is told and what meaning I/the reader derive from it**. To put it another way, I barely understand what PCP by the Manic Street Preachers is on about, but it makes me want to jump around like a loon – so as an act of public creation it is a success.

Of course, some things are not meant to be wholly understood. Douglas Adams once wrote “[t]here is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable”, and in doing so he was in a way offering hope to those who cannot find meaning in a meaningless universe. The universe isn’t meant to be understood. It’s meant to be experienced.

The more eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted that little (1) in the title. Coming up next are some thoughts regarding that even bigger cause of writer’s block – originality.

* Yes, I know he wrote Philosophical Investigations afterwards, posthumously published, but shush.

** This is not to say that one should write from a position of base ignorance.


Pale Blue Dot – picture of Earth taken from 3.7 billion miles away.