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This Writing Life: Working on the Edge of Understanding

26 August, 2011

Back when I was at school, studying for my A-levels, I distinctly remember something one of my English teachers told us. She was talking about finding her old thesis in the attic and reading it for the first time in years. “I know I must have got a good mark for it,” she told us, “because I can’t understand any of it now. I’m not even sure I understood it at the time.”

It was one of those offhand remarks that was to come back to me time and time again for years afterwards. It didn’t take me long to notice that, whilst I was at uni myself, I got the best marks for the essays in which I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d written. In these essays, I would inevitably have a good idea, but one difficult enough to understand that I wasn’t quite sure I grasped it myself. I would proceed to write it into my essay, and usually get a good grade. Even then, though, I wouldn’t always be entirely able to understand what my own brain had come up with – it was just a good thing that someone else did.

The same process, I feel, applies to writing. I get ideas – sometimes individual concepts, sometimes the whole, complex, intricate plots of novels – which I sort of understand, but not entirely. They feel to float somewhere just a little bit too high for me to reach. I can see them, I can even write about them, but I have to approach them at all sorts of strange angles and tangents. I can never look at the whole idea in one go, because then it becomes entirely incomprehensible. So, it’s a single line here, a character motivation there, and a plot twist to finish it all off.

It’s a strange business, I’m aware, and one that I’ve come to think of as ‘working at the edge of understanding’. I’m always pushing myself to come up with bigger, better, more compelling ideas. Sometimes they’re easy to grasp, but I think it’s the ones that aren’t that are the most important. These are the ones that force me to both improve my writing and my understanding of the world in general. I may never be able to fully articulate them, but in the process of trying – and sometimes failing – I’m constantly striving to push myself forward.

It’s the old adage, I suppose, of big failures being more important than small, unambitious successes. Rather than playing it safe all the time, we as writers need to be constantly pushing our boundaries, our understanding, our abilities. Because eventually, those ideas and skills that were beyond us once will be finally within our grasp, and that’s when we’ll have really improved.

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