Allowing For Uncertainty

by Mary Hrovat

In The Art of Revision: The Last Word, Peter Ho Davies notes that writers often have multiple ways to approach the revision of a story. “The main thing,” he writes, “is not to get hung up on the choice; try one and find out. … Sometimes the only way to choose the right option is to choose the wrong one first.” I’m easily hung up on choices of all kinds, and I read those words with a sense of relief.

Interestingly, Davies puts this advice in the context of scientific experiments. He writes that an experiment that doesn’t yield the desired result is still valuable because you can learn from it. Not long after I finished The Art of Revision, I ran across very similar ideas in the context of learning game theory. Shengwu Li at Harvard tweeted his advice for second-year grad students who are working on his problem sets, which previous students have found to be emotionally stressful. He notes that one reason research is hard is that you don’t know the answer in advance. When solving problem sets, as in research, it’s important to be comfortable with uncertainty, to be willing to make guesses and see where they lead.

I’ve struggled with both problem sets and writing. My undergrad physics, astronomy, and calculus classes were nowhere near as hard as graduate-level game theory, but I still found them challenging. One reason is that I’d typically been the kind of student who easily picked up rule-driven concepts and was able to apply them; I was used to problem sets being fairly straightforward. It took me a while to learn how to find my way into problems that weren’t directly represented in lectures or the text.

As a writer, it’s taking me a long time to really absorb the fact that you often have to proceed while uncertain. Writers often learn what they want to say and how they want to say it by trying to say it without knowing exactly what it is. They have to make decisions about a piece before they know enough about it to make the optimal choices. I’m afraid of making mistakes, and I have been clinging to the hope that there is a set of instructions and a road to follow, if only I could find it.

The more I write, though, the more clearly I see that there is no map. I’m not even sure there’s a single road. I’ve run across the idea that each book (essay, poem…) teaches a writer how to write it, but it doesn’t reveal much about how to write the next one. You build a road to that piece by writing it, and then you need to build another one to the next piece. It’s not that you don’t learn from the process, but you learn generalities, or maybe heuristics.

Starting a new work is thus bewildering and sometimes disheartening because so much is unknown. I thought for a long time that experience would ease my discomfort at the beginning of a writing project, but perhaps it won’t. Maybe the main thing I’ve learned from the writing process is that it’s possible to live with not knowing and not compound the anxiety by seeing it as a sign that I’m unsuited to the work. I try to take heart from something Philip Glass wrote: “If you don’t know what to do, there’s actually a chance of doing something new. As long as you know what you’re doing, nothing much of interest is going to happen.”

These ideas apply well beyond creative work such as writing or research. Antonio Machado’s poem “Caminante, No Hay Camino” suggests that our lives are roads that we build and walk only once. “Traveler, there is no road; you make your own path as you walk.” This view makes sense to me. It also helps detach me from an ingrained habit of worrying about whether I’m on the right road. In the context of Davies’s and Li’s advice, the poem seems to suggest that maybe the backtracking and blind alleys are part of the path. Perhaps, despite the confusion and frustration, these meanders are evidence not of failure but of the complexity and richness of life.

However, we live in a culture where it’s often difficult to try things and be OK with failure. Writers and others who create must often sell their work on a tight timeframe in order to pay their bills. Research is funded largely on the basis of expected results. More broadly, it’s become increasingly common to view life choices such as buying a home or getting a college degree or certification as an investment on which we expect a return. It’s expensive to try something and find out it’s not for us; many can’t afford to do it. We don’t take to heart the truth that sometimes you learn what works by trying what doesn’t work, and that people change. We also tend to label things as failures—marriages, for example—if they don’t last forever.

Our society also seems brittle to me. We’ve built expensive infrastructure that overall privileges one set of choices: non-dense single-family homes where everyone has a car, for example, or the choice to outsource production to other countries where labor is cheaper, to ship in food from far away. In my experience, even small changes, such as allowing slightly denser housing, are often difficult to implement because we’ve absorbed a set of beliefs about what constitutes the good life (and also in part because we view our homes as investments). I think this infrastructural and cultural baggage is among the reasons we’re not addressing the urgent need to adapt to climate change and reduce the effects as far as possible.

I don’t have any answers. I don’t see a clear path that would release us from the constraints of our current economic/political system and carry us into something freer and more responsive to human needs. However, if we make our paths instead of finding them, at least individually and perhaps communally, maybe there’s hope. I’m comforted by Wendell Berry’s words: “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.”

The Philip Glass quote is from Words Without Music: A Memoir.

The Wendell Berry quote is from the essay “Marriage and Poetry,” in Standing by Words.

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