Leave out what you know

by Wolf Pascoe on October 22, 2011

Seek simplicity, and distrust it. — Alfred North Whitehead

You have no idea. — David Orr (but maybe not)


A few years ago, I was invited to the O’Neill National Theatre Conference to workshop a play. This isn’t as good as winning a Nobel Prize, but it’s very close.

At the conference, which lasted a month, I hung out with the playwright Howard Korder, who’s work has been done everywhere. With reservations, he liked my play. One day he said this to me:


You know, Wolf, you can leave out what you know. It’s true at any level.

I’ve been puzzling about the remark ever since. Does it mean what you know isn’t important, a distraction from something more important? Does it mean you can leave out a sentence full of stuff you already know? A word? A paragraph? A page? A chapter? A whole book? Does it apply to starting a business? To childrearing?

I don’t know for sure, because if I did know I could leave it out, but it’s worth considering that the answers to these questions may be yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.




I didn’t know how much I liked Steve Jobs. After he died, I began reading a lot of things he said because I couldn’t help it, what he said was everywhere on the Internet. And I realized I liked him a lot. This is one thing he said:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.


This is like saying you can leave out what you know. And when you put it that way, who can argue? I can, sort of. Because first, it’s not only other people’s thinking that becomes dogma, it’s my own thinking. As in, I think I’ve got it figured out. Yeah, I’ve got this handled.

And second, I find it hard to recognize dogma—mine or somebody else’s—for what it is. I don’t see it. It’s in the walls. My walls. My choice of words. It’s in my received language, in words and phrases that other people use that become my vocabulary without my thinking about it.

Words and phrases like democracy. Communism. Terrorism. Occupy Wall Street. Tea Party.




Another thing about what you know. You may not know it. Yesterday I sent out a flyer to Nick’s school. The whole point of the flyer was to let people know when to sign up for a camping trip. Only I put the wrong date on the flyer.

If, as an exercise, I had decided before emailing the flyer to leave out what I thought I knew, I might have paid attention to the date and caught the error.

I started leaving what I knew out of my writing. I’d write a page of dialogue and then as an exercise, cut everything I thought I knew. The dialogue got better. David Mamet once said this about dialogue, and it’s the greatest thing he ever said: “It’s not say what you want. It’s get what you want. If nobody wants anything, stay home.”

Even in a blog post, there are things I want. But I don’t say what I want. I try to get what I want. Because I don’t know how to do that, at least, not when I start out. And sometimes along the way I find out that what I thought I wanted wasn’t really what I wanted. And what I thought I knew turned out not to be true.




Psychological studies show that if you remove the possibility of evaluation, aversion to uncertainty goes away. Which makes perfect sense. I find it safe to write about what I know. I can fool myself into thinking there’s no danger of saying something wrong or stupid. And who wants to be uncertain, stupid, or wrong when people are looking?

“`Cheshire Puss,’ [Alice] began…. `Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

`That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

`I don’t much care where–‘ said Alice.

`Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.

`–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.

`Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, `if you only walk long enough.’




Yesterday I knew my son Nick was a dork. We were playing a game and it didn’t work out the way he wanted and he stormed out of the room.

“You’re not listening to what I’m saying,” I said.

“Don’t care,” he said

Then he called me a name. Because he was being a dork.

Ten minutes later he found me.

“Dada, I’m sorry what I said,” he said.

I was uncertain what to do or say.

“Can we play the game again?”

“It hurt my feelings when you called me that name,” I said. “Can you think of something else to do when you feel frustrated?”

We made a list. We made a frustration management center out of some pillows. My son is a frustration management consultant now.

Who knew? I was sure he was a dork.



100 jeapordies



The Principles of Uncertainty — Who needs Heisenberg when we’ve got Maira Kalman?

Uncertainty — This book is all the rage. I’m including it here because it references the studies showing how the possibility of evaluation increases uncertainty. The book is on my long list of “must reads.” I plan to get to it by 2022 at the latest. 



What do you know, Joe? What did you think you knew, once? Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)


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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Chopperpapa October 22, 2011 at 7:49 am

I should have read this after I’d been awake for a few hours. I have to give consideration to one point you made – writing to get what you want. I don’t want to be that blogger.


Wolf Pascoe October 22, 2011 at 12:10 pm

By what I want I meant out of the writing, not out of people. But CP . . . what kind of blogger do you want to be?


Alameda October 22, 2011 at 7:58 pm

Do you know what what you want? Because if you do you will get it.
What do you think you know? Because if you know then there is no sense in searching anymore.


Wolf Pascoe October 23, 2011 at 11:35 am

If you don’t get what you want, does that mean you didn’t really want it?
My head is spinning.


Charlie October 23, 2011 at 2:50 am

Could Korder have meant “leave out what is already known” to the “writer” (not necessarily to you personally)? In other words, don’t state what is already known in the context of what you are writing? This is often a good editorial principle: to avoid saying things that you, the writer, (and we the reader/audience) have already discovered. This allows the writing to feel so much more spontaneous and immediate. I get this sense of freshness in your blog –that you are revealing what you don’t know as you earnestly strive for good results with Nick. This seems to let us experience and discover things as you do.


Wolf Pascoe October 23, 2011 at 11:33 am

That’s the secret. And once you can fake that, you’re made.


BigLittleWolf October 23, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Much to ponder. I’m mulling over this concept of leaving out what you know (in writing – and I can’t see how that works, though I don’t do a great deal of dialog), but also, writing to get what you want – which feels like a revelation.

So here’s the gist of the little light that just flickered. Writing to get what you want means knowing what effect you’d like to achieve (curiosity, pathos, surprise, empathy, etc.), particularly when telling a story. This makes great sense. It’s not just about getting from Point A to Point B, but doing so effectively so you hook the reader emotionally, in the ways you wish to. Or for that matter, if your purpose is persuasion, education, whatever – it’s writing to that purpose. Writing to get what you want.

I can (and do) write to a specific purpose when crafting marketing or other commercial copy; even journalism, tech writing, etc. But I love the simplicity of “write to get what you want” in the creative domain – which I don’t always know when I begin – but surely ought to, as the narratives and character unfold.

But leave out what you know? Still mulling.


Wolf Pascoe October 23, 2011 at 11:13 pm

I too have been mulling the part about leaving out what you know. I’ve been mulling it over for years. But every time I do it the writing gets stronger.


Privilege of Parenting October 24, 2011 at 12:42 am

Even in knowing that I don’t know what I want, I am still trapped by my thinking-mind’s very sense and way of knowing in the first place. What I probably want, but still do not know how to attain, much less sustain: the eternal Love of no mind whatsoever.

Of course there’s a certain caterpillar on mushrooms…


Wolf Pascoe October 24, 2011 at 12:50 am

When men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving slow
Go ask Alice
I think she’ll know


Sirena October 25, 2011 at 6:15 pm

I just asked Alice when she was ten feet tall and she said that if you leave out what you know then there will be less in there and you might meet up with a large grinning mouth and a disappearing cat (if you walk far enough). Oops, gotta go – my head just spun off and is circling the room and I have to go catch it! Many fascinating concepts to ponder in your blog. I’ll be right over to spend some time in the frustration management center – it sounds very soft and comfy.


Wolf Pascoe October 25, 2011 at 9:46 pm

You’ll want to consult with Nick. He can cure what ails you.


pamela October 25, 2011 at 7:40 pm

For once, I read something and totally understood it in my bones. I totally understand Mamet and I understand what you are saying in this beautiful post. Getting what you want involves staring down a blank page and writing anyway. Writing through fear and grief and loss and not shirking at what you find. You leave out what you know so that you can remember what you knew all along but forgot.


Wolf Pascoe October 25, 2011 at 11:19 pm

You leave out what you know so that you can remember what you knew all along but forgot.

You say the nicest things.


Kelly October 25, 2011 at 8:44 pm

Interestingly, I found a bundle of papers the other day that turned out to be the comments on workshopped short story I wrote in grad school. The one comment I re-read before tucking the bundle away was a suggestion to go back and remove all the obvious and over-written details that I needed to include, originally, to understand the story I was trying to write, but that were no longer necessary to the telling.

Perhaps that’s the leave out what you know? Perhaps it’s that what we know is known by others, too, and the story is prepared to tell itself without you forcing the known into it?


Wolf Pascoe October 26, 2011 at 9:52 am

Miles Davis said, “I always listen to what I can leave out.”

I think the real benefit of leaving out is that it leaves room for the reader/listener.


Barbara S. October 25, 2011 at 9:40 pm

So many great responses to this – I’m leaning toward Charlie and Pamela’s interpretations. I do believe it has something to do with allowing your reader (or audience) to discover things on their own through your writing…
I love that Nick is a frustration management consultant. I think he’ll be in high demand! I also agree with you on Steve… and congrats on the O’Neill National Theatre Conference. Very impressive!! (I’m trying to catch up! Sigh.)


Wolf Pascoe October 26, 2011 at 9:54 am

Yes. If there’s no room to discover, stay home!


Bruce Miller October 27, 2011 at 11:58 am

Why is my head spinning and off axis after reading all of the comments.
I feel like Pooh when he taps his head and says “think, think.”
Is it possible that Korder just made his statement up to throw you off the trail. .Successful artists can be real pricks. He could be full of shit. I know a lot of great writer’s that are. You’re brilliant Wolf..one of those rare writers whose HEART is out there hanging
What’s breaks off and we are able to retrieve as writers might come from our passion to connect…like an iceberg calving from the heat of the sun.
Basically nobody KNOWS anything. If they did they would be kissing more often.
Here’s what I don’t know. What’s going to happen in any moment besides this one.
I love the blog…it’s so juicy.


Wolf Pascoe October 28, 2011 at 7:10 am

No one has ever called me a calving iceberg before. Imagine!
And now I know why I’m not kissing more!


Bruce Miller November 1, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Hey Wolf Pascoe
It wasn’t directed specifically at you but if the iceberg fits…..if I was an actual writer I would have probably edited that out. I can’t for the life of me remember what I meant. As for kissing, an important ingredient would be someone to kiss. Another socially uncorrect correlation by me. Sorry


Wolf Pascoe November 1, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Everyone needs someone to kiss. Could be a song in this.


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