How I Deal with My Fear of Confusing Readers

Creativity is not a rare talent bestowed on a gifted few. Everyone has original ideas, possibly all the time—like a current running underground.

But a prolific artist learns to pay attention to them, no matter how bizarre, silly, or vague they might be. Art requires honoring our weirdest ideas enough to test them. Usually, this means trying to build something from them, whether its is a story, a painting, or a poem.

Despite knowing this, I am sometimes afraid of going too far—of writing something so alien that it will just confuse everyone.

A few years ago, a proofreader amplified this fear. Whenever my writing baffled or offended him, he sneezed exclamatory punctuation marks all over my manuscript, with some question marks tossed in. Many of his edits looked like this: ?!?!?!?

These “incredulity bombs” always made me cringe—especially since he rarely explained them. My interpretation was, “You wrote something so grotesquely strange and confusing that words elude me.”

After bidding goodbye to my proofreader, I persisted in my strangeness; after all I was writing about bipedal cats that were enslaved by humans. I did however redouble my efforts to write more clearly. But seeking clarity—while generally a good idea—can become a crippling obsession if you let it.

Besides, preventing confusion is not always possible. Any communication risks miscommunication. The most pedestrian conversation can lead to epic misunderstandings. No matter how articulate you are, you are eventually going to confuse someone—and that goes triple if you are a writer.

If I let my fear of baffling people have its way, I would never write anything. To relax, I like to remind myself of an artist who thrived on confusing his audiences, rather than avoiding it.

He was not actually a writer like me, but a comedian named Andy Kaufman.

In the nineteen-eighties, Kaufman became known for comedy acts that made the audience wince rather than laugh. His skits and stand-up routines flouted basic rules of comedy etiquette such as “be funny,” leading to the charge that he was more of a performance artist than a comedian.

In one of his Saturday Night Live appearances, he broke out of character in the middle of a skit, alarming his fellow actors as he fulminated about the poorly written script. In another legendary stunt, he spent an entire stand-up routine reading The Great Gatsby to a bored and baffled audience, not stopping even when they began to boo him.

As an adolescent I was unaware of his shenanigans, so I was taken off guard when he struck. As I was watching one of his stand-up routines on Saturday Night Live, he was suddenly accosted by a heckler.

Grinning and swaggering, the man kept loudly interrupting his jokes and reciting the punchlines before Andy could get to them. This was done to prove that Kaufman was predictable and not funny anymore. The heckler further urged Andy to admit his comedic ineptitude and quit his career.

The taunts seemed to drive the comedian nearly to tears. Instead of counterattacking, Andy seemed to crumple like an abashed, stuttering child, unable or unwilling to defend himself.  

Riveted to the spectacle by horror and fury, I fully believed that the heckling of Kaufman was real. And as a previously bullied kid, I felt like I was enduring his humiliation along with him.

I went to bed that night tormented with worry, hoping that the disgraced comedian would quickly recover from the merciless tongue lashing that had apparently just shattered his comedy career.

It was many years later, after I had graduated from college, that someone informed me that the whole event had been staged—a prank on the audience. The heckler had been friends with Andy Kaufman. Together they had conspired to bamboozle the viewers. The news irked me. That heckling had haunted me for years, yet it had not even been real.

By the time I learned of the subterfuge, Andy Kaufman had died, and critics were hailing him as a comic genius—a brilliant performance artist, a courageous engineer of human emotion, a keen social observer who had revealed uncomfortable truths about society. R.E.M.—one of my favorite bands—even wrote a song about him.

What exactly had Andy done? During the heckling stunt, he had done what many creative people do. He had honored a weird, convention-crushing idea by putting it into practice to see where it would lead.

But he went further than most. He engineered confusion. He allowed his viewers to linger, riveted, in a state of worry. He feigned his own humiliation in a jarringly un-funny way.

He did all the things I am afraid of doing by accident, only he did them on purpose.

Despite my annoyance over the prank, I now use it as a source of comfort. Whenever I find myself worrying that I will be misunderstood, I remember how Andy Kaufman was feted for deliberately triggering confusion in pursuit of comic drama.

When I start to fret that my writing is too strange for anyone to understand, I remember how Kaufman inexplicably read The Great Gatsby to an audience that was expecting a vibrant comedy show.

I think, “If Andy did these things on purpose and the world remained intact, then I can stop being afraid to do them accidentally.”

I am still not sold on duplicity as an artistic device. And I am still mad at Andy Kaufman for subjecting my adolescent self to unnecessary turmoil.

But I do appreciate his bold willingness to deviate from the script, to push back against predictability.  The arts thrive on a confluence of audacity and skill. In the case of Andy, the audience, responding to his defiance of convention, became a dynamic part of his art.

His antics reassure me that bewildering an audience does not equal disaster. If my writing is misunderstood or deemed odd, well, okay.

I write first to make myself happy. It is only in the final stages of revision that I worry about communicating my ideas.

But art goes further than communicating: it tests the audience. While the viewers are looking at art, the art gazes back at them. It probes their memories and their feelings, and it nudges them to the surface.

And because everyone is unique, I will never be able—regardless of my skill—to completely control the way readers experience my stories.

But that is okay. Beyond conveying a message, artistic success depends on the feelings it stirs, the memories it evokes, and its ability to surprise.

Even if they were unintended.

Writers Writing about Writing

A couple of weeks ago I was going through my old blog posts, and I saw a pattern that jolted me.

I saw  that I had written a lot about writing. Though I knew I had written frequently about writing, I never realized just how much.  It  seemed that the majority of my blog posts were about it. It was a revealing moment, and I had the thought, “I have said all I want to say about writing.”

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From Block to Creativity: Why Consider the Impossible?


It had been a while since I had considered the impossible.

My bipolar medication had made sure of that. It tugged down my mood and put a ceiling on my imagination. It chained me to the earth. It drained me of my innermost self. But one winter day, I managed to ask myself an absurd question. And for a glorious moment, the impossible seemed real.

I had been Christmas shopping that day. The act had not seemed festive; quite the opposite, in fact. I felt tired in a way that went soul-deep. It was not the trite sentiment that Christmas was too commercial; I liked exchanging gifts. It was that the kinds of gifts you could buy for people and wrap were boring: gadgets, electric razors, or novelties that would amuse but soon be forgotten. They created an upsurge of hope that fizzled after the New Year.

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Experiencing the World One Duck at a Time


For some people Disney World is paradise. But recently when I went there, it was all too much for me.

The crowds. The flash. The movement. Attractions and distractions that are the whole point of being there. I cannot focus. I cannot think. There is a parade blaring nearby and lines to stand in and the need to go to the next event to have fun and more fun, and there is a garden of vibrant flowers, ooh pretty, but there is Goofy waving, will Goofy be offended if I fail to wave back?

But my problem goes beyond Disney World. The whole world seems like a park full of flashy distractions competing for my attention. There is so much of everything: so many television channels, so many websites, so many video games, and so many books I have not read and want to read. I go to CNN on my computer and each headline is like a flashing billboard designed to alarm, titillate, baffle, or charm.

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Why My First Time Ghost Writing Was My Last


I was never excited about taking the job; in fact, the first time it was offered I refused it.

But this was Elance. The on-line freelancing website was not known for good jobs. Arguably it is the trash heap of the writing industry, a place where clients with insanely low budgets prowl the internet for cheap and eager labor. But I desperately needed extra money, and writing is what I do best.

In the email the client said he was impressed by one of my sample articles, a magazine article I had published just after college. He wanted me to write a blog post for him, just a couple of pages, but his budget was only 18 dollars. I turned the job down. 18 dollars was not going to do much to pay bills; I thought my time – and the renting of my brain – was worth more than that.

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Beyond Realism: How My Art Major Taught Me the Power of Purpose in Writing

In college, I used to envy students who could draw realistically, who could render apples to look like photographs.

After all, when I was a child, art was all about making things look real. Even in my college art classes, my inability to create the illusion of reality hurt me. I put in extra studio time in pursuit of artistic realism. I even sat in on drawing classes that were held in different periods in order to practice.

But no matter how much time and practice I put in, I could never seem to make higher than a B +. I went to my professor and expressed my frustration. He told me that, though my craftsmanship left much to be desired, my concepts were excellent. “The craft of art is very important,” he said, “but concepts are arguably more important. Thousands of art students can draw a realistic tree. But art is more than realism. Any camera can achieve that. Art is about purpose.”

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Why I Said No to NanoWriMo


Every November a fervor sweeps writerdom, an evangelical commitment to write fast and write more. This effort is called NanoWrimo or “National Novel Writing Month.”

The objective is to write a novel in a month, or at least the rough draft of one. For many it is a way to end procrastination, cut through resistance, and overcome stymieing perfectionism – to just get the words down.

The idea is radical, especially for writers who tend to fuss over every sentence as they are writing it. When I was writing for the web-based freelancing service Elance, I would see many jobs posted by writers who were 50 pages into a novel and wanted a professional to revise it before they moved on.

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Creativity and the Culture of Shame

When I first started watching it, I could not turn away. Near the end of every show the contestants sent their clothing designs on models out on a runway for a competition. Afterward the designers were evaluated for their artistic efforts by a panel of judges.

The contestants who failed to impress had to defend their decisions before a panel of renowned fashion experts, including the stunningly beautiful and doe-eyed supermodel Heidi Klum.

I am talking, of course, about the reality show Project Runway. I am not interested in fashion at all, but I am interested in creativity. The show was a lab experiment in which a group of creative people were put into high pressure situations and asked to perform.

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Writing: A Methodical Way to Dream

On the last day of my college biology class, I turned in my final exam to my professor. He took it and studied me. “Another ‘A’ I’ll bet. You know, you are really good at this,” he said. “Are you interested in pursuing a degree in science? What is your major?”

I tensed because I knew what was coming. “Art,” I said.

He laughed, and a few students joined in. He shrugged and sighed. “Guess it takes all kinds to make a world.”

His amusement illustrates a perception that art is frivolous compared to academic subjects; or that a cerebral mindset inhabits a more respectable realm opposite the free-flowing state of imagination.

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