Lucian Childs: Write What You Don't Know

“I don’t think you need to keep rehearsing
your instincts.
Far better to seek out models of what you
can’t do.”
Among the things writers are told, there are two seemingly
universal laws. Show, Don’t Tell. Write What You Know. It’s hard to imagine a
piece of fiction where the first doesn’t apply, but I’ve never seen much point
in the second.
Personal experience is always lurking in the stories I tell, but
as vocabulary, not as the main event. The point of writing narrative fiction
isn’t to answer unresolved personal questions or discover deeply buried
personal truths. John Updike again: “I believe that narratives should not be
primarily packages for psychological insight, though they can contain them,
like raisins in a bun. But the substance is the dough which feeds the
storytelling appetite, the appetite for motion, for suspense, for resolution.”
In other words, just tell us a story please where one thing
happens and then the next, that leads us somewhere.
Writing stories from personal experience is easier, I’ll grant
you that. We understand the connective tissue between events, our characters’
tics. How do we achieve this organic quality in a story we don’t already know?
The answer isn’t in your life, in research, in story prep,
although all that can help. The answer is on the page. Nancy Zafris, my teacher
for the last two summers at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, says, “Follow
your sentences to an end you don’t know.” This isn’t a magical formula,
although there is magic when you end your story and say, “How’d I do that?”
The main practice again: What’s the next sentence? This is harder
than you think. You have to set your agendas aside. Each sentence must grow out
of the preceding one. Character, dialog and action are revealed to you along
the way. You have to trust your subconscious. It’s like daydreaming on the
How to jumpstart this process? Here are some techniques Nancy
taught us.
1.  Collect
sentences. Use a set of notecards bound on a metal ring. Wear it on a
lanyard around your neck. Fill it with sentences you hear during your day. (The
technologically minded can use their smart phones.) When you get stuck, when your
characters aren’t speaking to each other in unexpected ways, go to your found
sentences. Find something that surprises you. Throw your characters a curve

2.  Write
a story to a first, middle or last sentence. Go to your found sentences or
collect others from the news, from an instructional manual. Anything. Find
sentences that speak to character, that require a response. Writing within a
box grounds you in an amorphous process that can be unsettling. You don’t have
to make everything up. Let these sentences do some of the work.

3.  Speaking of boxes, get one. Fill it with
stuff, with sentences from your bank. Ask friends to contribute. This summer,
my box contained a blue plastic swim cap, the sentences, “He treated everyone
with arrogance and condescension,” “Save room for Jesus,” and “Silly boy, Jeeps
are for girls.” The last item: a box of three spent bullet cartridges and one
live one. Those bullets wrote the whole story for me, with the help of the

4. Write to a prop. Use the power of objects to
reveal the progress of your protagonist’s innermost story. My first year at
Kenyon, Nancy tossed me a beach ball with Shrek and the Donkey printed on it.
That was a fun one!

5.  Analyze
a story structure and copy it. Last year we were assigned a triangle story:
three characters, seven sections. In the first section, Character A tells a
story set in the past when he meets Character C. I started: It’s hard to believe I was so crazy then.
By following this sentence and schema, voice and character revealed themselves.
In the end, I had a complete story, one that has changed very little from the
first draft. Was my personal experience part of it? Sure, but, filtered through
the prism of character, structure and setting, it split into a rainbow—a story
not my own.

6. Tell a story with a secret. Any will do. If
you need help, there’s an excellent book we used in the workshop, “A Lifetime of Secrets: A Postsecret Book” by
Frank Warren. This year I chose, I buy
antique pictures because it makes me feel like I have a family.
I started
with one of my found sentences which brought a character to mind. I kept
writing the next sentence. Whenever I got stuck, I went to my sentence bank and
found something revelatory or unexpected. I wrote it down. The result: A story
plucked from thin air that I’ll submit next month.
You can find other useful techniques for kickstarting your
stories by searching online for writing prompt sites. There’s even an iPhone app. Writing to prompts, while letting
your sentences guide you, is a powerful tool that can help you write the
stories you don’t know.
What do you think? Is this some narrative fiction mumbo jumbo?
Try some of Nancy Zafris’ techniques for yourself. Tell me how it went. Did you
scare or surprise yourself?
Lucian lives in Anchorage, Alaska where he makes his living as a
graphic designer. He was a finalist in Glimmer
April 2012 Family Matters competition. His work has appeared or is
forthcoming in Cirque, Compass Rose,
Quiddity, Sanskrit
and Rougarou.

1 thought on “Lucian Childs: Write What You Don't Know”

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top