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I experienced exactly that electricity, that energy, in writing a currently-unpublished fiction book.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

Managing innovation dilemmas: Info-gap theory

By Yakov Ben-Haim

Author - Yakov Ben-Haim
Yakov Ben-Haim (biography)

To use or not to use a new and promising but unfamiliar and hence uncertain innovation? That is the dilemma facing policy makers, engineers, social planners, entrepreneurs, physicians, parents, teachers, and just about everybody in their daily lives. There are new drugs, new energy sources, new foods, new manufacturing technologies, new toys, new pedagogical methods, new weapon systems, new home appliances and many other discoveries and inventions.

Furthermore, the innovation dilemma occurs even when a new technology is not actually involved. The dilemma arises from new attitudes, like individual responsibility for the global environment, or new social conceptions, like global allegiance and self-identity transcending all nation-states. Even the enthusiastic belief in innovation itself as the source of all that is good and worthy entails a dilemma of innovation. Continue reading

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

By Matthew Welsh

Author - Matthew Welsh
Matthew Welsh (biography)

How can we distinguish between knowledge and ignorance and our meta-knowledge of these – that is, whether we are aware that we know or don’t know any particular thing? The common answer is the 2×2 trope of: known knowns; unknown knowns; known unknowns; and unknown unknowns.

For those interested in helping people navigate a complex world, unknown unknowns are perhaps the trickiest of these to explain – partly because the moment you think of an example, the previously “unknown unknown” morphs into a “known unknown”.

My interest here is to demonstrate that this 2×2 division of knowledge and ignorance is far less crisp than we often assume.

This is because knowledge is not something that exists in the world but rather in individual minds. That is, whether something is ‘known’ depends not on whether someone, somewhere, knows it; but on whether this person, here-and-now does. Continue reading

How can we know unknown unknowns?

By Michael Smithson

Michael Smithson
Michael Smithson (biography)

In a 1993 paper, philosopher Ann Kerwin elaborated a view on ignorance that has been summarized in a 2×2 table describing crucial components of metacognition (see figure below). One margin of the table consisted of “knowns” and “unknowns”. The other margin comprised the adjectives “known” and “unknown”. Crosstabulating these produced “known knowns”, “known unknowns”, “unknown knowns”, and unknown unknowns”. The latter two categories have caused some befuddlement. What does it mean to not know what is known, or to not know what is unknown? And how can we convert either of these into their known counterparts? Continue reading

Accountability and adapting to surprises

By Patricia Hirl Longstaff

Image of Patricia Hirl Longstaff
Patricia Hirl Longstaff (biography)

We have all been there: something bad happens and somebody (maybe an innocent somebody) has their career ruined in order to prove that the problem has been fixed. When is blame appropriate? When is the blame game not only the wrong response, but damaging for long-term decision making?

In a complex and adapting world, errors and failure are not avoidable. The challenges decision-makers and organizations face are sometimes predictable but sometimes brand new. Adapting to surprises requires more flexibility, fewer unbreakable rules, more improvisation and deductive tinkering, and a lot more information about what’s going right and going wrong. But getting there is not easy because this challenges some very closely held assumptions about how the world works and our desire to control things. Continue reading

Managing uncertainty in decision making: What can we learn from economics?

Community member post by Siobhan Bourke and Emily Lancsar

Siobhan Bourke (biography)

How can researchers interested in complex societal and environmental problems best understand and deal with uncertainty, which is an inherent part of the world in which we live? Accidents happen, governments change, technological innovation occurs making some products and services obsolete, markets boom and inevitably go bust. How can uncertainty be managed when all possible outcomes of an action or decision cannot be known? In particular, are there lessons from the discipline of economics which have broader applicability? Continue reading