Subject Matter Inexpert

Straight out of college I took a very corporate job — the kind with an annual week set aside to celebrate itself, complete with a cake in the shape of its logo and “fun” pop quizzes on company history. But I was writing for a living. Granted, I was writing about facilities management, preventive maintenance and HVAC units, but I was writing for a living. I knew little about the topic, especially early on, so I relied on my colleagues, the so-called Subject Matter Experts, or SMEs (because it was Corporate America and it isn’t real until it has an acronym), which conjured Captain Hook’s boatswain, Peter Pan, Wendy and the third-star to the right more readily than expert in waste removal services.


How would it feel if I were an expert? The go-to person? The one who had technical, often first-hand knowledge about how something works? To be the first phone call? Would self-doubt dissipate? Would I radiate confidence? If I felt like an expert, would Q&As, for example, be a lot less anxiety provoking?


A couple years ago I attended a lecture on the history of pizza in Brooklyn. Scott Wiener, the Guinness Book World Record Holder for the largest collection of pizza boxes, fielded an audience question: is there a correlation between the cost of subway fare and the price of a slice of pizza? In my memory, he cited the day, month and year of a New York Times article off the top of his head proving just this point (there is). I looked for proof to validate this memory, but the only video of the lecture cuts off before the Q&A so, dear reader, trust me on this level of nerdery — both mine and pizza SME Mr. Wiener’s. The man knows pizza. Maybe he knows everything about pizza.


More recently I heard Zadie Smith asked, What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten? to which she responded: “I think it’s ‘write what you know.’ I know too little. It’s about voyeurism — it’s about being in other people’s lives.” (Ms. Smith also said, “I haven’t really done anything with my life except read books,” to which I politely disagree with her underestimating self-assessment.)


I’ve spent three years profoundly uncomfortable, alternating between feeling fraudulent and dumbfounded by the things I don’t know. How do I string these words together to conjure emotion? How can I be fair to my characters? How do I build a novel? Is this cliché or original?


But this I know: This novel has no other author. I’m going to fumble and fail and make a giant mess. I’m in the discovery process, one where I can follow my whims and indulge my curiosity, and decide what, if anything, makes it out of my head, onto the page, and into the world. I’m standing on the edge of uncertainty, and the only thing I can see from here is growth.