Words on the Street, Revisited #34: I Don’t Know

Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.


I say it all the time now. But rewind a few decades and it pained me to utter these three words: 

I don’t know.

Oh, how I wanted to know. This. That. Everything.

What changed?

I don’t know, for sure. Not being in-the-know, particularly in the moment and at all times, doesn’t rattle me the way it used to. Here are a few possible reasons why:


  • I’m older. And, on better days, not knowing can sometimes feel liberating instead of the way not knowing used to feel in my very early-20s (scary, wrong, utterly unnerving.) Also, not knowing now means there is more to take in, to engage with and learn. The opposite of that is way less active, way less fun.
  • I try to listen deeply and fully now, as opposed to being half-assed about it. (I just pulled the word half-assed out of my treasure trove of childhood expressions as in: “I need to you count the cash box and arrange the bills right, don’t be half-assed about it!”)  I remember when I hardly listened. I was too busy thinking what I was going to say next, probably so I presented as though I knew. And knew. And knew. One part exhausting, one part egomaniacal. Not pretty. 
  • I’ve got a little street cred, in this case the street being named after whatever you call the grown-up life experiences of person in her 50s: a career in social work, love, marriage, major family tensions and joys, motherhood, more love, sudden, unexpected losses, a career shift and a few health scares that were, in keeping with the name, scary. Might we call the street I Don’t Know Row?
  • And finally, there is the unending list of changes, challenges and flat-out atrocities in personal, cultural and political realities that were never, ever imagined way back when. (Was my not imagining these things naïve, immature, close-minded, sheltered? Maybe a little, or a lot, of each.)






Honoring stories and experiences.

And imagination.

Sounds like approaches to use in writing. And ones that work without being a know-it-all.





Blame it on the algorithm, but wow. It does seem like there are a ton of writing classes, workshops, circles, centers and communities. As an instructor in some of these spaces, at first I was shocked and concerned about saturation. But now I see the great value in having diverse, varied and modern offerings with new ways of looking at the craft. I also like to take classes, too, so I can get a sense of how others teach and learn. I appreciate hearing ideas from students about what classroom practices work well and why. Here’s a shout-out to some beloved groups I am involved with that offer classes, some in-person and others on Zoom, too: Write or Die/Chill Subs, The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, Writers Circle, Scarsdale Adult School and Key to the Castle Workshops. Check out what’s on the schedules, leap into fresh learning and don’t be afraid to say I don’t know. (It may very well lead to some new knowing, plus it’s a great way to meet other makers and widen your creative community.)



When we listen to ourselves and others, I mean really listen, insights surface. There is always something new to hear, always something fresh to discover. But it takes diligent attention and intention. You never know what you will hear, even if you’ve heard a story before and how that might open doors to new work and story ideas all your own.

For more on listening, have a look at my Write or Die Magazine July, 2022 column, Listen Up.


Stories and Imagination

Reflecting on life experiences, using them to better understand ourselves and the world around us and honoring them on the page in whatever way feels natural is not, as some fear and others may lead us to believe, a selfish and purely self-serving act. It can be a release, a way to make art, a form of prayer, a step toward action. It can be only one or all these things. It can be something else entirely. And, yes, it’s a form of listening, too. 

The page listens.

In Writing as a Way of Healing, Louise De Salvo nudges thought on this:

“What, though, if writing weren’t such a luxury? What if writing were a simple, significant, yet necessary way to achieve spiritual, emotional and psychic wholeness? To synthesize thought and feeling, to understand how feeling relates to events in our lives and vice versa?”

When we place words, ideas and wonderings onto a page and then use our imaginations, doors open. These openings may welcome new ways of seeing something we’ve looked at all our lives, they may ignite the start of a fresh poem, essay or short story. The open doors do not need to offer an all-inclusive knowing; we may still be unsure of many things and still say that frequently: I don’t know. Even writing this column has made me think: What is the difference between knowing and understanding?

I may not know my exact answer to this question right now, but in the spirit of not being half-assed about it, I’ll think it over. And make some notes.


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