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.