Divine cluelessness

by Tulasi-Priya on Tuesday 13 December 2011

Over at Betsy’s this evening, she wrote about the “terrible odds of getting recognition” that most writers face. We’re all Janus-faced: grandiose and insecure at once, she says. The cure is to move on, to keep working, keep the terrors of looming obscurity away with activity. But what if, like me, you can’t even get (or stay) started? Never mind lack of recognition, what about fear of even beginning? I don’t know how people work around it. I suppose I don’t have the willpower that others do. It could also be that I don’t drink or do drugs anymore, which used to go a long way in getting me over myself enough to write or get on stage. Spiritual fortitude is always nice, but it can take a lifetime to muster in sufficient quantity, especially if you’re not the holiest of rollers.

There’s a quality that happy, productive people share, whether they are successful by some externally-imposed criteria, or by an inner benchmark of satisfaction: an ability to tune out the negative voices that hiss Failure and Rejection and Humiliation. Their work may be second rate, the number of people who applaud them tiny, but that does not stop them from putting on the yoke and teaming up with the Muse for another day of plowing the fields.

One might look upon them in wonder, thinking, “Is it possible that they don’t know they are talentless, their prose leaden, their style dishwater, their ideas trivial?” Not only is it possible, it’s natural and essential. So determined are such folk to contribute to the outpouring of creative product in their world that it strangles the evil whispers. They see only the work to be done, and themselves doing it. If you hurl critical barbs at them, they bounce off, as if turned to foam rubber. If one should find its mark, it is promptly plucked out, the wound washed in the praise of those whose faculties are not so refined as the critic’s, and the intrepid foot soldier goes back into battle. As someone whose pessimism is exceeded only by my cynicism, this drives me nuts. How is it possible that someone who is not as smart/talented/original as I am can feel so good about themselves and their work, when I can barely bring myself to write the word “the?”

I’ve learned to stop resenting such people. Now, I want to be like them. I call their gift Divine Cluelessness, the ability to proceed hopefully in one’s chosen endeavor in spite of all possibility (if not actual evidence) that you will fail miserably if you do.

People with DC are not stupid. They’re not hicks. It’s not that people possessed of DC are unable to assess their work objectively. They just understand that the only standard they can really hope to meet or exceed is their own best effort. It’s not that they don’t care about having an audience or getting published, it’s that they have abandoned their preconceived notions (if they ever had any to start with), of who their audience is to be and what their fame should look like. It’s as if they are willing to allow their work to mold their artistic identity, to draw the audience intended (be it the New Yorker’s readership, or Guideposts‘), and to set the course of their careers, all without too much obsessing on their part. Their fear of failure and rejection is minimal-to-absent because there is no false expectation, only the expectation that somebody will care about, will be interested in what they have to offer. Like bloodhounds, they keep their noses to the ground until they find the scent, and then follow it. They don’t just create their art; their art creates them.

Why am I not like that? Why do some people use their creative vision to imagine failure and potential struggle instead of success? According to some researchers, depressed people see themselves more realistically than happy people. I flatter myself that my cynicism is clear vision, but a thing taken to its extreme becomes its opposite. My whole life, people have told me I’m smart. But maybe my mother was right: maybe I’m too smart for my own good. Of what benefit is it to be able to see all the possibilities before they even happen? There’s no functional difference between a smart failure and a less intelligent one. The odds for failure will always be stacked against the lone chance of success, but since I’m not blessed by birth or parenting with blinders to those possibilities, then I need to cultivate the Divine Cluelessness.

Why “divine” cluelessness? Because I’m not in control; that’s somebody else’s job. My job is to show up, with all my ideas, inspirations, and creative challenges, and through them, work on myself. The result is up to God (or fate if you like), but it is absolutely out of my hands. We can rage about this (a lot of writers seem to think it’s part of the Artist image), but if I’m going to embark on this path at all, I want to have fun with it.

I’ve always been moved by Carolyn See’s account of how she started writing her first novel. See is (and was) no dummy, but she was working the Divine Cluelessness to the max when she got it in her head to write a book:

In this ratty living room in this slum apartment, surrounded by inviting books, I pulled up to a 1940s dresser that Richard See suggested looked a lot like a desk [. . .]

And I started! I wasn’t the praying kind then, so I suppose I was talking to myself when I said, “One book. Let me complete just one book, and let it be part of the pile—” I saw that pile in my mind’s eye, miles high—”of all the books that have ever been written,” and I began to write with tears on my face, because at that time the idea of writing meant as much to me as anything in the world.
[ . . . ]

At that time, I was absolutely alone as far as writing was concerned. It was just me and Doris Lessing and Saul Bellow and E.M. Forster. In the real world, I was only “an unimportant wife who did not like my life, ” as Alison Lurie would later write. But I was so entirely enchanted that I didn’t even have the voice that said, “Who cares?” It hadn’t even kicked in yet. If it had, I suppose I would have answered “Well, everyone’s going to care! How could they not?”

I’m charmed by See’s DC here. She grew into a great career, and even though the Nobel Prize was one of her goals, it was more as star to navigate by, not her reason for writing.

Of course, Divine Cluelessness is really just a symptom of another quality that is more far-reaching: humility. Contrary to common belief, humility is not abjection. It’s not being less than you are, it’s being exactly who you are. When we’re not puffing ourselves up, we can be nimble and flexible, standing bold in our just-right stature: not too big, not too small. It frees up a lot of creative energy to just be. Any living thing, when allowed to be, grows, becomes bigger, but only up to its proper size. Overstretching, whether of the body or mind, is painful and makes us weak. Maybe I’ve been paralyzed because I’ve been lying on the rack of my ambition, afraid to crank the damn thing. If so, it’s a case of cluelessness being smart.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

MacDougalStreetBaby December 13, 2011 at 8:55 am


You’ve described me perfectly. I will never be a poet, never be able to weave words together in such a way that my audience looks up from the page, flushed with change. I will never win The National Book Award, The Pulitzer, or even a Caldecott. I will never be among the great writers of our world. And you know what? That’s okay. In the past year I have hopped out of bed, excited to pour my soul out onto my blog page, willing to expose myself to whoever was interested. It was a wonderful experience because it helped me accept myself and with that came the freedom to do. I’m right now writing a story. It’s not earth shattering or epic or even that complex and I’m totally okay with that. The simple fact that I’m doing it is enough.

My husband told me this morning that I mystify him. He’s never been able to figure out how I’m able to put my head on my pillow and fall asleep so instantaneously. I think this falls into the category of Divine Cluelessness. It doesn’t occur to me to do anything else but close my eyes and sleep.

You’re ahead of the game in that you’re smarter and more talented so that when the time does come when you’re ready to start, you’ll probably produce something of unbelievable importance. Keep writing your blog posts. This is the beginning of your liberation. You’ll see.


Tulasi-Priya December 13, 2011 at 1:31 pm

I will never be a poet, never be able to weave words together in such a way that my audience looks up from the page, flushed with change.

It isn’t true, macdougalstreetbaby! I almost always leave your blog much improved. Other times, only somewhat improved (I’m probably resistant on those days). Certainly never worse, even when I read your words and say, damn, wish I’d said that. It makes me want to keep trying.

“Unbelievable importance?” If I say anything important, it’s what I’ve heard and absorbed from others who figured out what matters long before I did.

I, too, am a champion sleeper. It wasn’t always the case, which is the subject for another blog post.


Bethany December 13, 2011 at 12:57 pm

And all this time, I had no idea they were so noble and undeluded – which may or may not have been a word but I graciously allow it. :)


Tulasi-Priya December 13, 2011 at 1:32 pm

I think it is noble. Don Quixote was a fool in everyone’s eyes.


Deb December 13, 2011 at 8:24 pm

I can talk a good game of divine cluelessness, but the fact is I’m terrified too, TP. But I’ve been working in solitude so long I feel if I don’t just burst into the world I will never push myself to get better, move forward. Part of me needs to make that connection – even though I know I’m no prize winner. Know what I mean? I’ve always been afraid of not being perfect. Finding myself willing to put myself out there like that is something new and wonderful. Realizing some people will think I suck and that I can survive it relatively unscathed is life changing. I’ve been reading your comments for a long time and I agree with MSB. You have some important things to say. I for one, can’t wait to read them.


Tulasi-Priya December 13, 2011 at 11:56 pm

Thanks for dropping by, Deb, and being so encouraging.

I seem to recall reading that you are currently making some serious “connections” with your work. Your recentcomment on Betsy’s blog got me thinking, wow, maybe that will happen to me when I have something substantial done. Your novel sounds very significant, and full of love. No wonder people are responding!

“Not a prizewinner,” huh? Have you ever entered a competition? I got Honorable Mention in a scary story contest for the Miami Herald about 25 years ago. I’m pretty convinced d bet that there’s some Finnish-American organization somewhere that would love to throw a few bucks at you to work on your novel. Have you looked into that?


Averil Dean December 13, 2011 at 9:26 pm

Aha! There it is, my ace in the hole, my smut-actular DC! Nothing is more humbling than being a dropout from a long line of closet intellectuals (there hasn’t been a college-educated individual for as far back as anyone remembers; my son is the first). We like to think about things, we like to whisper amongst ourselves, but when it comes to achievement there must have been some critical twist in our DNA that has always prevented it. Every single person in my family (and most of the members of Drew’s as well) is spectacularly unambitious, but lately I’ve begun to wonder if some facet of that mindset is an asset to living well.

Okay, I’ve got too much to say about this to lay it all here. I’m going to have to do a post of my own.

Maybe we need DC bracelets. . . .


Tulasi-Priya December 14, 2011 at 12:11 am

Can’t wait to see what you say. You are so wise, and you can bet I don’t say that to all the girls.

Do I detect a note of (bitter?) sarcasm in your comment? All I can say is that the current winner of the National Book Awards (what was her name again?) don’t put grits in my bowl or music in my soul on a daily basis, but you do. I suspect quite a few people feel the same way. That might have more far-reaching consequences than a literary beauty contest.

I will make up some bracelets. Maybe some temporary tattoos, too.


Averil Dean December 14, 2011 at 11:41 am

Not really. I mean, I’m bitter about having screwed myself so royally, education-wise, but that’s neither here nor there; it’s just an ongoing joke from me to myself. Pressing the bruise, as Betsy would say. What I got out of your post was this wonderful idea of accepting my family’s tradition of low expectations, and finding the freedom in that. I’ve never considered the idea of growing to my proper size as a writer (as a person), but I love it. Not too big, not too small.

Divine Cluelessness is a beautiful thing. I want the tattoo in real ink, under the skin.

(I tried to write the post I mentioned, but decided I needed to mull it over a bit.)


Tulasi-Priya December 13, 2011 at 11:26 pm

Good LORD, I love these comments. I just want to say that, in my attempts to be fairly regularly about blogging, not being too mental about my writing, and pursuing DC, I don’t give myself as much time as I might to really work out what I’m trying to say. I hope nobody thinks that I’m saying that DC is the province of the un(der)talented and unambitious. Far from it. I’m just trying to talk myself out of the ingrained idea that I have to be hypercritical of myself to be a serious writer, that if I’m not doing Pulitzer-caliber work that I should just hang it up, and that I’m a joke for even making the attempt. I want to work in the consciousness that the process itself has value, regardless of the results, and that I have just as much right and obligation to write as any freaking’ Pulitzer prize winner. I’m convinced that the DC is something worth cultivating, and the sooner I (we) do, the sooner a lot of energy will get freed up to blow everybody’s minds, right after I’ve blown my own.


Sarah W December 16, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Forgive the late comment, but I just found you through Averil’s place. Hope it’s okay?

I love the idea of Divine Cluelessness. The bumblebee flies because it never occurs to her that by the laws of nature and physics, she should drop like a small rock.

But it’s a willful balance, isn’t it? Because there’s also the Centipede’s dilemma—if he ever thought about how he can walk with all those legs, he’d get all tangled up and never walk another step.

Thanks for making me mindful of this, TP.


Tulasi-Priya December 16, 2011 at 10:34 pm

SarahW: Thanks for dropping by! I think those classic examples are marvelous.* We don’t even fully understand how the material energy works, so when less tangible factors enter in, how can we be completely cynical?
*That is the first time in my life I’ve used the word “marvelous” in a sentence. ‘Bout time.


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