Thursday, 12 April 2012

Five things more important than knowledge

Have you ever met anyone who knows everything? No? Me neither. And I'm not sure I'd want to. They'd either be the most fascinating person on earth - or the most boring.

But the accumulation of knowledge is something worthy to aspire to, surely? Knowledge makes us better people. Knowledge makes us better writers. Write what you know and all that. The more we know, the more we can write about, the better writers we'd be, right?

Well, not really. If writers only ever wrote about what they knew we'd have no fantasy, no science fiction, no speculative writing, no vampires or werewolves. If writers only wrote what they knew, the literary landscape would be a very dull place.

The truth is, knowledge is cheap. It's easy to acquire and it's easy to ingest – all it takes is a little work. Anyone can do it. In fact, you can even pay someone to do it for you. Knowledge is nothing more than food for the creative mind.

So what things are really useful for a writer?


Albert Einstein said it, and I think we'd all agree that he was pretty smart. And he was a scientist. Surely if anything is all about knowledge it's going to be science, right?

Apparently not.

The great thing about imagination is that it allows you to make cognitive leaps – it's what some business-types like to call 'thinking outside the box' or 'pushing the envelope' – in other words, generating ideas. In a creative space it's even more powerful than that – it's possible to create whole new worlds, and a whole new science.


If you're going into battle who'd you rather have with you – the combat vet or the newly minted officer with a head-full of knowledge? Me too. And there's a reason for that – no plan survives first contact with the enemy. When it gets real you'd take practical experience over theory any day. You want to be the person who can think on their feet, who has the ability to react to the situation they find themselves in - whatever that may be.

Same goes for writing, or any creative exercise. If all you can do is slavishly follow a plan and stoically apply what you were taught at writing school you're never going to be a great writer. You need to react to your story and your characters as your writing unfolds because if you don't, you'll miss opportunities for great moments and ideas and responses that you didn't envisage when you first set out. Sure, you need to know where you're heading, but if you see something beautiful along the way, make sure you go and check it out.


I know a lot of people who know a lot of stuff but do nothing with it. I also know a lot of people who have little knowledge but make it go a long way. The difference is attitude - to never to give up; to see problems as opportunities for new solutions; to relish a challenge with confidence that it can be addressed. You might not know the answer but you can find or invent one. Once you start thinking like that, you're thinking like a writer.


You may have an inventive imagination and a good work ethic but creativity is about going from something to nothing – it's about building. You don't need to know great tracts of theory to invent, you just need the basic skills to create in your chosen medium. Knowledge is about knowing someone else's creation - you're now in the business of creating something for someone else to know about.


Understanding is about problem solving. Understanding is about perception. Understanding is about looking around you and responding appropriately and sensitively to the environment you find yourself in. Waltzing into a situation with a whole heap of knowledge without the ability to temper that knowledge with what you see around you is very close to prejudice. Sometimes knowledge can get in the way, as you bend the reality to fit what you know rather than the other way around. If the map and theterrain are different, trust the terrain.

Perhaps after all, ignorance is indeed bliss. Now let's get cracking.

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