I want to be ignorant. I love to be ignorant.
Also, real ignorance is a big soft marshmallow feather-bed of privilege. Professors, administrators, students, and anyone who's just heard you're going to grad school are likely to immediately pressure you to pretend you know stuff you don't know. This is true at the graduate level, of course, but my suspicious memory says the pressure's there at every level of schooling: Pupils who magically have information the rest of the class does not have are successful, while those who merely know what they know are dumb. I'd have it different.
I started thinking about how much I love my own ignorance when I started school recently. My notes from a lecture on 8/10/13 say "What is a craft paper? We take Alexie's 'Unauthorized Autobiography of Me' as an example. It isn't, it turns out, anything any of us [students] guess that it is. It is the random-seeming things the prof writes on the whiteboard." I remember 8/10/13 quite clearly, because that day, during that lecture, I was very publicly unable to pretend to know things I don't know. Turning it over in my mind, I remain unwilling to participate in such theater, but am I right to be so stubborn? That extensive orientation weekend found me arguing with professor Catherine Brady in front of about a hundred people. "So do you all understand what we mean by 'craft?'" she asked several times, after specifying that craft wasn't "appreciation" of writing, nor was it "literary interpretation," and that it was different from "meaning." I was sitting near the front. "No," I said each time, even after Brady became harshly contemptuous with me. My insistence on the autonomy of my own ignorance, to the annoyance of an authority figure: Was it helpful? The awkward and possibly time-wasting conversation that ensued could have been avoided by my merely staying quiet. Only I'd have had to say "yes" when the answer was a stone cold "no," which would have been a very direct lie. In the end I smiled at her and said "I'm sure I'll figure it out." She wanted her definition to make sense, which is understandable. But it didn't.
More of this same "craft" thing came along in my first seminar of the semester, "Intention and Design in Narrative," a wonderful class that ended up being full of the reading and thinking and discussing I had hoped writing school would be. I have to confess now that I put this professor, too, through a series of trials. When Lewis Buzbee asked us to discuss "craft elements," I immediately raised my hand to announce that I didn't know what those were. While uncomfortably trying to answer me, he called me "unconfident." Note from my seminar course, Intention and Design in Narrative for 8/21/13: “Asking questions and being confused does not make me 'insecure' or lacking in 'confidence,' it doesn't even make me ill at ease.” This one has a happier ending, though. Eventually Buzbee broke down and admitted that a dictionary of literary terms was essentially a collection of "craft elements." I had one at home already but had not been sure what to do with it.
The freedom to know only what you really do know is rare, and to be able to ask unashamed questions confidently is even rarer. Stupidity doesn't want to learn, or can't learn, but ignorance is neutral and may even want very badly to learn. I know mine does. I went home and studied Harry Shaw's "Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms" and came to class all pumped up on the objective correlative.
It's more acceptable to lie, to blatantly be wrong, than it is to ask questions the wrong way. Infuriating! When someone hucks a phrase at me and I don't know what it means, I want to be able to say "What does that mean?" I want to be ignorant, because ignorant can learn. Ignorant exists in the state of being able to learn, of not even knowing enough to be ashamed of not knowing. This is the fastest way to learn things. It's the way children do it, and look how much they learn in ten years. The Zen Buddhists say "beginner's mind." In the case of professor Brady, it wasn't helpful. But in the case of professor Buzbee, it led to an entire book of concrete answers. Another teacher had yet a different perspective.
In a paper called "Raising a Pup Tent: You Just Have to Learn, or, A Meditation on Structure" for professor Dave Madden, I wrote on the first page: "No matter what the context, the people most likely to know how (to plan complex literary structures) say things like 'Well, you kind of just have to know how to make each paragraph sing.' If you don't know, apparently, you 'just have to' learn." What should you already know? Who gets to decide what you should already know? Your character is formed, inside and out, by the knowledge you've tracked down on your own. I remember the first time a friend pissily explained to me that it wasn't his job to educate everyone, just because he was the gay one. "I don't have time enough in my life to explain, to [expletive] prove to everyone that discrimination exists -- not even if I wanted to AND I don't want to," said Justina. I hadn't thought of it that way before. So it's the responsibility of adults to investigate the effects of their path through the world. Lots of us spend significant time looking around for ways to learn about the effects we have on the world, even if we can't see them and no one told us they were out there. But what about the less-important stuff— like how to write a book? Am I accountable to already know about that? I don't want to be.
On the eighth and last page of "Pup Tent: You Just Have to Learn," I wrote: "So finally, I will just have to learn. I hereby remove all scare quotes from the phrase, and move the emphasis from 'just' to 'will.'" Professor Madden liked that. His response read in part: "I was thrilled by what the AP Stylebook taught me, and then felt lost and stupid when my grad program told me completely different things. It's perpetually unstable. You have to relearn it and make it all up over again every time you put a thing together. This essay hits on what we all continually rely on -- imitation, the traditiona, what's come before. Check out Harold Bloom's The Agony of Influence & Jonathan Lethem's "The Ecstacy of Influence" (in Harper's mag). Nice work here."
Epilogue: Professor Buzbee's response to my first paper: "What can I say? You rocked this thing. Whatever concerns you may have had about writing papers, they seem to have been misplaced."
is a San Francisco based writer. She was born in Moffitt Hospital at the UCSF Medical Center, but grew up in a mobile home on a farm in hippie country, now called wine country. Some people think this makes her a San Francisco native, and some don't.