Unknown unknowns and my Unbound adventure

The moon stuff came out of nowhere, knocked me sideways, sent me swirling into a vertiginous panic

The first time it happened, I was in the infant class at primary school. At the end of the spring term, the adorable—adored—Miss Hughes announced to her pupils that she would be getting married during the Easter holidays.

‘So what will my new name be when we come back to school?’

Left to my own devices, Rumpelstiltskin would have seemed as sensible a guess as any. No joke though, the entire class replied in unison.

‘Mrs Thompson.’

When I say entire, what I mean is entire minus one.


To this day, I have not the faintest idea how my class mates came by that (correct) answer or where I was (physically or mentally) at the moment they were primed with that particular piece of information. I’d even go as far as to say that I’m fairly certain I wasn’t even aware of the possibility of a Miss to Mrs transition, never mind the idea of a whole change of surname.

So there I sat on my miniature chair at my slice of a shin-high, half-hexagonal, light-grey plastic table, while Miss Hughes basked in the radiance of her future marital happiness and the adoration of her tiny students, and was (as I remain) utterly baffled.

Another time. It’s First Year at High School. A science class and the discussion is about sources of light. We’ve mentioned the sun, fire, light bulbs, stars, fireworks. The list is fizzling out. I rack my brains.

‘The moon,’ I say (and immediately wish I had kept my mouth shut).

Every kid in the class, it appeared, knew that moonlight wasn’t real. That it was reflected light. That the moon itself wasn’t actually shining. Every kid, that is, bar me.

Moonlight: not what it seems

I have to say, I just didn’t get it. It didn’t make any sense. Without wanting to sound big headed, I was good at science, pretty much consistently top of the class. How had I got to age 11 and been utterly oblivious to this apparently universally known fact? Daft or what?

It’s happened other times since. There I am, happily pottering along in my own little world when out of nowhere comes some piece of info that everyone else in the world appears to know but which has passed me by completely. Honestly, the moon stuff came out of nowhere, knocked me sideways, sent me swirling into a vertiginous panic. And even now as an adult, whenever I see moon shadows on a clear night, I feel a frisson of that same mortification and have to remind myself the moonlight isn’t quite what it seems.

Such is the power of the unknown unknowns.

Known unknowns are accessible, manageable. The things you haven’t quite got round to learning, or couldn’t be bothered to learn because you know where to look them up if you have to. Work harder, read another book, do some research. Easy to avoid slipping up and falling in if you can see where the edge is.

Unknown unknowns, on the other hand, are chasms of anxiety, surrounded by uneven tree roots and loose rocks and mud slips which send you plummeting to their depths. And, in my experience, there’s always the metaphorical equivalent of a camera there to film your humiliation (or a class full of school kids).

But what, you may ask, has this got to do with anything? Yes, good question. It’s a roundabout way of bringing up my social media ineptitude. Up until about two months ago, I hadn’t sent a tweet in my life. I signed up several years ago but hadn’t actually got around to using it. Had a rough idea that it was celebrities selling their latest bios or folk slagging off politicians. Knew it had a sinister side. Wasn’t totally au fait with a hashtag. Had no idea how to conduct a conversation. All in all a sad indictment of my modernity. I was at least aware of the depth of my ignorance.

Or so I thought.

So, my novel The Backstreets of Purgatory gets taken by Unbound (celebration), I don my adventurer’s garb to spread the crowdfunding word, start tweeting (@mookiemain), experiment a little, tweet into the void, tweet to myself, invent my own hashtags, learn not to tweet after an evening on the gin, learn not to invent hashtags with close to 140 characters, invent the term twetiquette only to discover someone else invented it years earlier. Eventually I even manage to get a follower or two. Check me! Mrs Modern.

But then I read an article in the Guardian about a live twitter chat #women_writers about online marketing. Reckon it sounds interesting, useful for my Unbound campaign, but I don’t even know what a live twitter chat is. Manage to bluff my way through (with some guidance) and sign up for a taster session on guest blogging with Laurie Garrison. It’s here I hear about a ton of things I had no idea about. Medium, Patreon, SEOs, analytics and loads more besides. The thing that cracks me up is that there are thousands, tens of thousands of people busy using these tools every day and I’ve only just discovered they exist.

Cautiously, I look around. Has anyone noticed how close to the chasm I am?

This is the point where I tell you another story about when I was at primary school, and it feels relevant although I haven’t exactly worked out why. Aged about six, I’m learning the recorder in a group with my best friend Sharon and Jill the headmaster’s daughter. We’ve learnt a few nursery rhymes by heart, The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond and Frère Jacques (tunes I already know). The problem comes when we have to learn a new tune. Sharon and Jill pick it up way faster than I do. I’m floundering. Some of the notes have letters written underneath so I play those ones and fluff my way, weak-breathed, through the rest.

Then, a couple of days later—at night, in fact, when I’m in bed—I have a revelation. Maybe the position of the black dots on the stave tells you which note is which. Maybe every C is in the same place. And every B the line below. By this time it’s late, I’ll get into trouble if I’m caught creeping around the house after bedtime, but I can’t wait. I sneak down, open my recorder music book and check out my theory. I’m right. Suddenly, I can read music.

To be honest, I’m not sure if I should be pleased that I worked it out myself, or mortified that once again I was day dreaming when they gave out the instructions. And frankly, if this was a proper story, the ending should be that once I finally sussed how to read music my hidden talent became manifest. This isn’t a proper story. Believe me.

And how exactly any of this applies to the whole crowdfunding, social media, blogging stuff, I’ll leave you to extrapolate. Maybe there isn’t any real extrapolation because I’m not working it all out for myself, because I’ve had some guidance from people who know what they are doing (like Laurie), but I’m beginning to think that perhaps after all the unknown unknowns are not actually those terrifying chasms but might be an opportunity to have an adventure.

Author: Helen M Taylor

Author of The Backstreets of Purgatory

3 thoughts on “Unknown unknowns and my Unbound adventure”

  1. I SO understand what you went through! I’ve had many of those “moments” too. People have often said to me, “If you didn’t know, why didn’t you ask?”, but how can you ask when you don’t know that you don’t know something? 🙂 🙂


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