The Fourth Discipline: Knowing

"Through the night, through sleep, the subconscious
works with the characters. They're alive again
in the morning. You understand? Ready for work."
(Ernest Hemingway)

We have made three distinct moves in preparation for this moment. The day before, we spent five minutes deciding what to write about and what to say about it. Two minutes into our writing session, having spent those minutes establishing the rhetorical posture of our key sentence, we’re now, finally, going to start doing what most people think of when they think of “writing”. We are going to spend ten minutes writing between five and ten sentences that support, elaborate or defend our claim. We are going to tell our reader what we know in order to help our them overcome the difficulty of believing, understanding or agreeing with us. Or we are going to tell them why they should be as excited about this fact as we are.

If you have made the first three moves in a serious and disciplined way (which takes some practice, so don’t worry if you haven’t the first few times you try it) this will not be especially difficult for you. After all, already yesterday you knew what you’d be saying now. You felt the dignity of an iceberg beneath you as you were deciding what to write about in the morning. All that should be happening now is that this feeling is becoming a series of thoughts, statements that are easier to believe, understand or agree with than your key sentences, and which, together, imply it. These are your reasons to hold the view you’re expressing and you’re simply making them visible to your reader. If you really have decided to write about something you know, these sentences should come quickly and naturally to you. Your subconscious was preparing them for you while you slept.

If you’re struggling here, you should not, of course, give up. But do note that the problem isn’t really one of writing. During these ten minutes, your problem is simply knowing the material, and if you’ve chosen your key sentence wisely, this isn’t a problem at all. So, while you shouldn’t beat yourself up, do chide yourself a little for picking the wrong thing to write about, something you don’t actually know well enough. You made a bad decision if this is very hard for you. But you’re stuck with it, so you may as well enjoy it. Use these ten minutes to explore the depth and the breadth of your ignorance. Be comfortable with not knowing — write to expose your ignorance if that is what it takes — but don’t give up, don’t stop. Usually, if you tough it out, you’ll realize that you’re not completely ignorant. You’ll come up with something.

The more you develop these seven little disciplines the more you will enjoy especially this one. This is where you feel your mastery over your materials. Here you are a musician in control of your instrument, a carpenter letting the saw do the work, a boxer absorbing and delivering familiar blows while sparring, a dancer in step with your partner. The sentences seem to write themselves, arranging words whose meanings are familiar to you, referring to things you have experienced, and asserting claims feel certain are true. Everything you say, you are able to imagine. You can see the scenes before you with your mind’s eye. You make yourself pictures of the facts and write them down. You know what you are talking about.

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