Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Art of Not Knowing What the Hell You're Doing

I haven't blogged much lately, partly because of the Holidays, kids' birthdays, and life in general. Part of it has been that I've still been looking for work, or waiting to see if my looking has panned out. Some of it has, and I've gotten two small web design and writing jobs--one for my dad and one for a friend. The web stuff is basic, but I want to do a good job, and my skills are almost up to the basic level. I've been working hard at brushing up my html and adding some css knowledge, with a big stack of books on my desk, and a zillion web searches. The writing assignment is a challenge--trying to turn a very long and complicated legal case into something that makes sense to a general audience.

There are people whose greatest desire is to become an expert. They delve deeper and deeper into a topic, getting that PhD and beyond. Sometimes I really want to be one of those people. It sounds comfortable, reassuring, a way of approaching life with a certain confidence and serenity. (Or so it would seem from here.)

Apparently, I'm not one of those people. Instead, it seems like I'm always neck deep in some project that I don't really know how to do and don't know anyone who is likely to show me. I remember my first temp job, 20 years ago--I'd passed the tests by studying from the manuals (they were printed back then), but I'd never used the software on an actual computer. When I got to my first job, it took me half an hour just to figure out how to turn on the machine. (I ended up working there for more than a year.) The tasks that I don't know how to do, and up doing, vary--from being a landlord to repairing century-old double-hung windows, from producing radio dramas to writing novels. The list goes on (this year--coaching soccer, putting together PVC drainage pipes, subbing for a playwriting class...)

I don't know the exact nature of the appeal--the adrenaline, the challenge, the transition from feeling prickly, uncomfortable in my own skin to finally being grounded again. Being a writer fits in perfectly--because there's always a chance to try something that I just don't know how to do, or to write about something that I know nothing about (history of the Bible, Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe).

There are pluses and minuses to having a concerted lack of expertise. On the downside, it's hard to get paid much or often. People usually want to hire someone who is an expert at a given task. Same applies to teaching gigs. And those cool NPR talk shows, where they chat with people who seem to know every obscure detail about the topic at hand--they're not looking for jacks-of-all-trades.

The upside is that I never get bored. Some of the skills I learn end up being useful in tasks farther down the road. And I have a chance to fail, often. This might not sound like a big positive on the surface, but in a way, it's what makes life worth living, isn't it? (Not that the failures don't bring with them a hefty bag full of depression.)

I've just finished getting comments from my readers (thanks, guys!) on my new novel. This is only my second novel, and I definitely don't know what the hell I'm doing. I'm trying a double first-person narrative, scattered over a period of twenty years, in both the present and past tense. It is not brilliant (my readers were kind but firm about this). It might not even quite be good. Yet. I've been working on it for two years, and I'm not sure that I'm ready to launch back into it, or if I need a little break first (my opinion on this changes by the hour). I have an idea for how I might fix it, but I'm not sure that I completely know how. I guess I wouldn't have it any other way.

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