Creative writing as a journey into the unknown unknown

By Lelia Green

Author - Lelia Green
Lelia Green (biography)

Do you use writing as a means of accessing your unconscious knowledge and understanding? The electric experience of things falling into place is a well-recorded outcome of ‘writing to find out what you want to say.’ E. L. Doctorow is credited with saying that writing a novel is “like driving at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way” (no formal reference identifiable, but see Quotation Celebration). There is a sense of allowing the unfolding journey to deliver you to your destination, and experiencing the energy rush when you arrive. It’s a matter of relinquishing control and being open to the unexpected.

Australian novelist Helen Milton Bastow described an equivalent revelation. A fiction writer, Bastow had avoided researching Indigenous stories about the places of her childhood in case they overly influenced her own story telling. One day, however, she was on an eco-trail in the Coorong, South Australia, when she happened upon an information display about the local Indigenous dreamtime:

I realised that the way in which I had imagined The Coorong in Chapter Two of my novel was significantly related to aspects of the Ngarringjeri Dreaming story of Ngurunderi. I had unconsciously used two of the most important motifs of the Dreaming for The Coorong to describe the place of my dream: the central figure of a “black man”, or “Ngurunderi”, and the “Milky Way”, the “resting place of Ngurunderi”. The realisation of this unconscious connection was a powerful moment, which I felt in my body, as an emotional shock – or a combination of awe and relief. (Bastow 2003)

I experienced exactly that electricity, that energy, in writing a currently-unpublished fiction book. My lead character was the son of a British migrant who had been part of the forced migration of poor children from the UK to Australia in the 1930s. I was looking for a classic English surname that had overtones of artisan guilds. I toyed with ‘Archer’, but discarded it because I have friends with that name. I moved on to think of names with a B. In the end, my lead character identified himself to me as Nathaniel Baker.

About three years later, I finally got down to writing the novel. Imagine my surprise to find a key plot point turning on a photo of Nathaniel’s father and a dozen other youngsters in an institutional setting. The contemporaneous title given to that photo was ‘Baker’s Dozen’. Was the title a reference to thirteen people, all of whom were victims? Or was it a reference to Baker as an oppressor of twelve other children? At that time I couldn’t believe how neatly the name had fitted the plot: or the plot had fitted the name. I took a long walk to try to accommodate the jolt of energy I’d felt, and tried to untangle how the unknown unknowns of an emerging plot in written fiction had resulted in this outcome. In the end, I accepted it as serendipity.

So what are we to make of writing ‘to find out what we want to say?’ The conditions are not always favourable, but they do seem to include, in my experience:

  • being focussed for some time,
  • investing periods of concentration and attention, but
  • allowing an internal, less-conscious process to take over, as part of an
  • intense engagement with a bigger picture, that
  • enables the minutiae of detail to fall subconsciously into place
  • revealing itself as it does so.

What’s your experience of letting a story make its own way forward? Are there processes like this that you’ve used to uncover unknown unknowns in other situations?

Bastow, H. (2003). Dialogues with a body called the research journal, TEXT, 7, 1, April. (Online):

Biography: Lelia Green PhD is Professor of Communications in the School of Arts and Humanities at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia. Her research expertise centres on the risks and opportunities associated with young people’s digital media use, including the digital lives of younger children aged eight years and under. She is sole-author of two books Technoculture: from alphabet to cybersex (2002), and The Internet (2010), and is a co-editor of Digitising Early Childhood (2019), Narratives in Research and Interventions on Cyberbullying among Young People (2019) and the Routledge Companion to Digital Media and Children (forthcoming). She is also the author of two unpublished novels.

This blog post belongs to a series on unknown unknowns as part of a collaboration between the Australian National University and Defence Science and Technology.

Published blog posts in the series:
Accountability and adapting to surprises by Patricia Hirl Longstaff

How can we know unknown unknowns by Michael Smithson

What do you know? And how is it relevant to unknown unknowns? by Matthew Welsh

Managing innovation dilemmas: Info-gap theory by Yakov Ben-Haim

Scheduled blog posts in the series:

November 5: Looking in the right places to identify “unknown unknowns” in projects by Tyson R. Browning
November 19: Blackboxing unknown unknowns through vulnerability analysis by Joseph Guillaume
December 3: Yin-yang thinking – A solution to dealing with unknown unknowns? by Christiane Prange and Alicia Hennig

15 thoughts on “Creative writing as a journey into the unknown unknown

  1. I have done a fair bit of looking into the creative processes of composers, and your six conditions are frequently echoed by composers who endeavour to describe the task of writing music. It seems there is a link between the type of writing you speak of and composing music. Indeed, having been a composer myself (a long time ago in a life now far away) I can vouch for the “driving in the dark and seeing no further than the headlights” metaphor. 🙂

    • Dear Charles
      Thank you for your thoughtful post, and for raising the intriguing possibility that creativity across a broad range of arts and sciences may share common features. You may be aware that writing to music is a recommended technique for writers to work through ‘mental blocks’, and there may be equivalencies in musicians being inspired by literature? It seems that this internal creativity, which needs to be trusted but which is not susceptible to ‘knowledge’, is best approached circumspectly, rather than being interrogated. It would be fascinating to start investigating a science of creativity as a means of accessing tacit understanding of yet-to-be-realised topics!
      Thanks again for engaging with the post, and apologies for the slow reply
      Lelia .

      • Mahler, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Richard Strauss, Verdi (opera composers generally), Berlioz, Wagner, Rimsky Korsakov, Schubert, Schumann, Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, Elgar, Purcell, Mendelssohn, Vaughan Williams, Carl Orff, Bernstein, Stravinsky, Mozart, Charles Gounod, Carl Nielsen, Telemann, Sibelius, Paul Dukas: these are the composers I can call to mind immediately who were inspired by literature. There are, no doubt, many more! 🙂 Beethoven’s 9th Symphony could be interpreted as a massive manifestation of something that is (still) yet to be realised: world peace and cooperation. Thanks for replying Lelia.

  2. Many thanks Lelia for your inspiring post, which reminded me of a creative writing activity that I’d previously been involved in using for the purpose of accessing unconscious knowledge and understanding. This activity is the “story spine” which I’ve just written up in the article at

    While not facilitating the longer focused periods of concentration that you encourage, the story spine provides the other favourable conditions for revealing insights that you list.

    Your post also prompted me to worry that we might be inadvertently turning future academics away from creative writing through the academic writing teaching that we give to students. I say “we” in a literal sense because one of the things I do is teach academic writing.

    We describe the different types of writing – creative, academic, journalistic etc. – and while we don’t say that creative and journalistic writing have no place in academia, this is implied by the subsequent emphasis that we place on academic writing. In response to your article, I’m thinking about how we might be able to maintain the emphasis on developing the necessary academic writing skills in students without diminishing the value of creative and journalistic writing. Although much of my own writing uses the evidence standards that apply to academic writing, most of my writing is journalistic in style, so I’m well aware of the significant value that journalistic writing can bring to science communication and also to helping to reveal unknown unknowns.

    • Bruce, thank you fore your fabulous article on ‘The Story Spine’! It reminds me of a wonderful aphorism from an old creative in an Advertising agency “Give me the freedom of a tight brief”. I can absolutely see how the story spine works, both to structure a story and to reveal unknown unknowns. And I can also see how it provides a brilliant starting point for a workshop discussion. So thanks so much for sharing!
      As for your other (implied) issue, about whether there is space for creative and journalistic writing in academic contexts, I think that blogs like this one, and The Conversation, are increasingly demonstrating the value of a journalistic approach. At the same time, I nurture the hope that — for some academics at any rate — creative writing may yet be shown to offer a valuable and innovative path to new knowledge.
      Finally, these days, when I find a subject area too amorphous to pin down, and when mind-mapping (see Tony Buzan) seems to multiply possibilities rather than streamline them, I often resort to using PowerPoint to create a linear quasi-story board. Next time that happens, I shall b e delighted to give the story spine approach an outing instead! So thanks again, Bruce.

  3. Your interesting essay is related to Walter Kaufman’s comment in “Tragedy and Philosophy” (Princeton University Press, 1968, p.ixx):
    “Writing is thinking in slow motion. We see what at normal speeds escapes us, can rerun the reel at will to look for errors, erase, interpolate, and rethink. Most thoughts are a light rain, fall upon the ground, and dry up. Occasionally they become a stream that runs a short distance before it disappears. Writing stands an incomparably better chance of getting somewhere.”

    • Yakov, thank you for this beautiful quote from Kaufman. It does indeed sum up an aspect of what I find so exciting about writing, when I get the opportunity to do it in an open (rather than time-pressured) way. I think there is a difference, though, between what I aim to describe and the writerly process outlined by Kaufman. One of the extraordinary things about the kinds of manifestation that I have encountered, and that I think Michael has experienced, is that the process does not involve polishing or refinement. Instead of using writerly tools to clarify the augment, the open-ended process arrives at a holistic creative insight that delivers something fully formed, seemingly beyond one’s individual capacity to fabricate. My personal response is to explore, investigate, and appreciate: it’s a matter of getting to know, rather than one of crafting.

      So when I write about my fictional character Nathaniel Baker identifying himself to me and, taking liberties here, when Michael responds with a story about getting to know four families of probability distributions, this is not with a view to editing them in any way. Instead, the sense is one of appreciation and, in Michael’s word, the experience is ‘humbling’. To that I would add an electric shock of awe. Recognising the risk of seeming sentimental, and in the absence of editorial input, I think I’d better leave it there!

  4. I also believe the act of gentle writerly formation is important to modeling unknown unknowns.

    I study the relationship between creative writing processes and formal knowledge representation techniques. This lovely piece of writing describes something a computer can’t do, and which is desirable for them to do, which is to construct a new perspective on a specific situation. When I’m writing, I discover both the situation and my perspective on it at the same time. Author Sue Woolfe has described this as ‘loose construing’, a term borrowed from psychology, where an unforced rambling through ideas can lead to coherence which is larger than we would have made consciously.

    Machines can’t do this, which is a problem for the formal modeling of unknown unknowns. When knowledge is formally represented, it is structured using mathematical or logical frameworks that allow it to be managed by a computer system. This representation is necessarily explicit – it isn’t hazy or ambiguous. Another side-effect of formalizing knowledge is that the scenarios it captures are general. This ensures the process can be repeated many times and in numerous circumstances. A well-known example of this is a script, such as the actions a person would perform before ordering a meal in a restaurant; another example is the process a person goes through to purchase entry to a movie theatre.

    But what of the situation in which you decide to dance on the bar of the restaurant? Or the reason you sit in a cinema alone on a particular day? The process required to describe or understand those situations is different from matching the name of a venue to what should normally occur within it. The representation of divergent events and the ability to newly define a phenomena as it emerges is the province of the creative arts, I think.

    So: thank you for a beautifully written blog post.

    • Beth, I love the idea that unknown unknowns need to be approached from a perspective that does not try to constrain them but which allows them to expand into the possibly impossible. I’m pleased to think that the kind of creativity which follows on from ‘writing to find out what you want to say’ represents a process that computers cannot currently managed. Such writing provides an opportunity to escape the constraints of everyday human life and venture into something that is rare and unusual, and possibly beyond our conscious comprehension. One the rare occasions when the pieces come together, they do so in a way that is not only unforeseen but also unpredictable, because the whole includes insights that seemingly emerge without logical antecedents.

      As someone who works in critical Communication Studies I have long been aware of the theory that public opinion polling does not so much discover public opinion as create it, as an artifact. This idea recognises that people are sometimes asked about things on which they have no conscious view. It is only through thinking about a topic that they discover their response. This uni-dimensional outcome is a poor distant relation to the process you describe, of becoming aware of the situation and your own perspective at the same time. The potential difference may lie in a third element; in the creative unfolding we may realise our perspective and the situation coupled with unexpected synergies.

      I’m not entirely certain that I wish to live in a world where computers can achieve these feats through non-mathematical or other forms of logic, but I wonder whether they will feel a sense of excitement if they ever do so?

      • >One the rare occasions when the pieces come together, they do so in a way that is not only unforeseen but also unpredictable, because the whole includes insights that seemingly emerge without logical antecedents.

        Yes. I also feel that when looking back over the process in retrospect, the cumulation of that insight makes a kind of sense. Do you find that too? I’m interested in the ‘making sense’ structures that are not logical and which have their own ways of forming. In fact I’m collecting and drawing them as moving networks: analogy, influence, associative structure, blending, transformation. I’m interested to learn about and draw others.

        >The potential difference may lie in a third element; in the creative unfolding we may realise our perspective and the situation coupled with unexpected synergies.

        I also feel strongly about this as a quality of modeling anything. Representation not only names phenomena, it also creates it. This is both positive and negative – in a positive form, an artist marks the page and then notices what is there, and then builds on it, a collaboration between unconscious knowledge and some sort of instrument. In terms of formally trying to model unknowns, this indicates how something beyond ordinary logical approaches is needed. I think there’s a quantum element to it, when the event and the context emerge in tandem.

        >I’m not entirely certain that I wish to live in a world where computers can achieve these feats through non-mathematical or other forms of logic, but I wonder whether they will feel a sense of excitement if they ever do so?

        I think yes, in a sense. Because if the representational vocabulary includes some of the process we’ve been describing, then it would also need to include some sort of resolution of tension or reward as its conclusion.

        >I’m not entirely certain that I wish to live in a world where computers can achieve these feats through non-mathematical or other forms of logic

        I oscillate between two different ways of thinking about this. One is that every technological advance is just another step in making our models fit real-world processes more closely. So rather than making a sentient Terminator, it might just make a search engine that’s capable of identifying new patterns in the human immune system (for example), or make medicine that’s more tailored to each individual’s body. Subtle improvements in quality of life.

        The other stance takes heed of efforts like the 3A Institute at ANU, which indicates how new power in technology needs to come with implicit checks and regulation. In the case of writerly ‘logic’, one natural constraint is that it doesn’t deliver facts. I won’t delve into what it delivers instead, though, because I’m writing about it in my own fiction…

        • Hi Beth
          Your work sounds amazing!
          >I’m interested in the ‘making sense’ structures that are not logical and which have their own ways of forming. In fact I’m collecting and drawing them as moving networks: analogy, influence, associative structure, blending, transformation. I’m interested to learn about and draw others.

          You’re right in identifying a kind of ‘making sense’ that becomes available to a retrospective view, and I think the “quantum element” would be a great way of conceptualising it, provided that examining the phenomenon doesn’t change it. (Or, at least, if the phenomenon is changed through examination, then it’s still possible to chart what from and to what as part of that examination).

          I love the thought that a recognition of having been ‘in the presence of’ unknown unknowns introduces a kind of tension that can be resolved. I think the more we know about how we perceive and respond to these beyond-logic occurrences, the more we will understand ourselves and the world we inhabit.

          As for your vision of the machines that may be incrementally approximating our real-world processes of intuiting and acknowledging unknown unknowns, I take comfort in your positivity and in your vision being grounded in a fact-informed world. No post-truth here as an unknown unknown!
          Your fiction sounds fascinating. I hope to read it one day.

  5. Lelia, you’ve provided a nicely articulate account of how unknown unknowns and the jolt of surprise when they’re revealed underpin a strongly motivating aspect of the creative process. I’ve encountered the same kind of experience in writing, doing art, making music, and — although it may seem odd– in doing mathematics. How can this happen in maths? Andrew Wiles (of Fermat’s Theorem fame) provides an account that contains most of what’s needed to understand this:

    “Perhaps I could best describe my experience of doing mathematics in terms of entering a dark mansion. One goes into the first room, and it’s dark, completely dark. One stumbles around bumping into the furniture, and gradually, you learn where each piece of furniture is, and finally, after six months or so, you find the light switch. You turn it on, and suddenly, it’s all illuminated. You can see exactly where you were.” [1]

    To his account, I can add one more aspect based on my own experiences. A few years ago I invented a family of probability distributions. Because I’d invented them, my initial attitude toward them was Aristotelian– These were my creations. However, as I explored their properties I came to realise there was a lot I didn’t know that I didn’t know about them– for instance, that there were four sub-families, each suited to modeling different kinds of data. Gradually, these distributions began to seem less like things I’d created and more like things I had found. I became less Aristotelian about them and more of a Platonist, feeling as though I was exploring the properties of pre-existing mathematical objects I merely happened to stumbled across.

    The unknown unknowns behind serendipity can be humbling as well as surprising.


    • Michael, thank you for your thoughtful, elegant and personal response to my post. I loved the domesticity of Andrew Wiles’s description of the light-switch moment that reveals a high definition version of what was previously known in only the vaguest terms.

      I appreciated even more your journey from a sense of having first invented, but then actually getting to know, four separate families of probability distributions. That process of becoming familiar with (a family analogy again) the products of imaginative creativity is one I have experienced, too. Whether it arises out of writing, or exploring maths, finding out what you don’t know you know seems to me a matter of enabling a manifestation, rather than building a construction. I think this way of interacting with these particular kinds of unknown unknowns, beyond what we can consciously assume the subconscious contains, demands a spirit of exploration. The entities that reveal themselves are so unexpected in their wholeness, and their complexity, that they need a ‘getting to know you’ process to understand what it is that has been gifted.

      You are so right about this being a humbling process. I have heard that musicians and mathematicians are more likely than many other arts-informed scientists to believe in a creative spirit. I don’t think it’s necessary to assume a higher power, but I have also felt that sense of being offered something beyond one’s personal power to achieve. It doesn’t seem to be a normal element of a three-dimensional world, which may partly explain why it is such an exhilarating, exciting and awe-inspiring experience.

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