Paul Graham, "What We Didn't Know We Knew: Urgency, Mystery, and Fiction"
The poor writer—presumably in an intellectual profession—really oughtn’t to know what he’s talking about. –Grace Paley, “The Value of Understanding Everything”
We begin in the living room of a bungalow-styled house in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The house is in the residential district where the professors live, far from what was known a decade ago, and probably still is known, as the “undergraduate ghetto” with its couches perched on roofs and front yard debris-fields. Late autumn. Inside the house, where a writer lives, a fire burns in the fireplace. Eight graduate students, chatting quietly, finish a dinner she has cooked for them. The writer, a novelist, is a teacher of serious apprentices, ardent readers and yearning storytellers. At first she thought she had invited her class over for dinner and workshop as a change of scenery. To give them a gift. But now, with the meal concluded and the twenty- and thirty-somethings soporific with chicken and pasta and wine, the writer sees that she wants to ambush them. Perhaps she realizes with a blush that ambushing them was her plan all along.
“You have it all wrong,” she tells them, opening the class in a new way. “All semester you’ve been doing it wrong. You’re writing stories you simply can write. I want you to write stories you have to write.” She holds the workshop pages for that class meeting in her hand—two short stories—crinkling them. It’s clear she has said all she has to say for the night.
The students in the class—which, in case you haven’t figured it out, yet, includes me—look around at each other, dumbfounded. Each of us knows she’s right. Our stories have been safe. Flat. Empty, even. Each of us vows, then and there, to do better. Or at least I did. Except I had no idea what the hell she was talking about. I thought I knew, but I understood only the smallest part.
In another class, a year later, a more aggressive teacher, a New Yorker, a small, intense woman who basically sees her role in the teaching process as a Geiger-counter for bullshit, will snap back in her chair and intone to more or less the same group of individuals, “It’s like you’re all very technically proficient, but you have nothing to say.”
After class, at the bar licking our wounds, we will wonder, Is this what we pursued advanced degrees for? To hear that?
In fact, we did.
The Fallacy of “Knowledge”
I begin with these moments because they the are the only two teachings I distinctly remember hearing when I was an MFA student, and because it has taken me the better part of my career—as a writer and as a teacher of writing—to figure out what they mean. Really mean. Extracting a process from them is difficult. We’re likely to stumble onto “urgency” and “saying something” somewhere in the drafting process, and I believe it is these moments we have in mind when we say that a story “writes itself.” Stories do not write themselves, of course. It’s more accurate to say that when this appears to happen, we’re approaching a story from a subconscious or semi-conscious level rather than a conscious level. There is something both mysterious and necessary here, and it would be nice if we could all raise the odds of it happening more often, and, consequently, reduce the odds of a story falling flat.
First, there is a key reason why my teachers’ lessons took so long to learn. Like most serious aspiring writers, I arrived having studied the “rules.” One of the true oddities of creative writing is that its rules are packaged as clichés, even though a cardinal rule is “avoid clichés” (another is “break the rules”). Up until that night in my teacher’s living room, I had spent all my energy “writing what I know.” That was my mistake.
“Write what you know” is, of course, sensible enough advice, especially for a younger writer. Stick with the familiar, don’t overreach, don’t go where you have no business going because you’re bound to get the characters or the background wrong, and there are real intellectual and emotional and social (if you’re published) consequences of getting the story wrong: you contribute to a plague of oversimplifications afflicting a society which is, by and large, dumb and unreflective enough already.
It’s economical advice, too, as it’s a potential shortcut through the “avoid clichés” rule, and also “show, don’t tell,” because with the details readily available from experience, an aspiring writer is more likely to use original detail than to indulge in clichés. These are all necessary practices, but I don’t think that holding to deep knowledge of a subject is the only way to accomplish them. To some degree, knowledge may even impede detail, specificity, and texture.
There are other, related good-advices, all of them as clear as they are inadequate. Write about your fears. Write about your memories. Write about your childhood. Adolescence is, after all, one of the most fraught times in a human being’s development, and psychological conflict is great for drama. Whole libraries could be filled with books containing writing exercises that are some variation of this.
The greatest writers seem to back this advice up as if it had been carried down from a mountaintop on stone tablets. Flannery O’Connor: “Anyone who has survived childhood should have enough material to last them a lifetime.” Ranier Marie Rilke: “Write about your childhood, that treasure-house of memories.” Henry James: “A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.” All true, and all to the good, though I think if you were fortunate enough to have these writers in the room, and pressed them to elaborate on their words, you would find that what they have in mind is something far more complex and nuanced.
For example, I do not believe that O’Connor means you should write about your second grade teacher just because you recall some salient details about him (pause for a moment here: showing O’Connor such a story is a truly terrifying thought). Rilke does not wish to hear about your vacations on Lake Superior—not, at least, unless something interesting happened there (though he may want the keys to your cabin on those weeks when your family’s not around). Henry James couldn’t care less about your fear of spiders, or even airplanes. And neither, quite frankly, could most of us. As I write this, I “know” all kinds of things: facts, fears, experiences, ideas. I am, you might say, a nearly-bottomless well of information that is useless for my writing. None, or very few, of the things I “know” will breathe the breath of life into a short story, though I could still use them to write a sturdy, functional story. But a functional story and a story that urgently shows you something are two entirely different things.
Increasingly I have come to see the kind of knowledge a writer should aim to work with as idiosyncratic and messy, subconscious and conscious, and fundamentally mysterious to the writer himself. The kind of knowledge we’re talking about may, in fact, be closer to half-knowledge, or nearly ineffable until the story dramatically expresses it. This is where the writer is most likely to discover the kinds of things he has to write about, the things she urgently has to say. It is, in other words, essential for writers to know what they don’t necessarily know they know (got that?) and to draw on that knowledge for their fiction. But it’s far easier to write about banal, conscious, everyday knowledge and experience. This is why the two types get confused.
The process of coming to know what we didn’t know we knew is time-consuming. My teachers didn’t say that. Or maybe they did say it, and I was just too focused on chasing after the flotsam in my conscious mind. It requires gestation, patience, observation, and tenacity. And they certainly didn’t say—at least I don’t remember it—that writing stories we have to write demands the writer practice another habit which appears in so many beloved essays on writing (but which I don’t think we really understand as well as we think we do, either), the habit of passivity, of yielding. Keats said this quality alone is enough to make a writer great, if met with talent.
Here, in closing, is a reading comprehension quiz I know you can pass: In the time you read this essay, a couple of involuntary memories revealed themselves to you. I’m certain they did, though perhaps they only stirred in your mind, like the fin of a trout brushing the membrane between the surface of a lake and the air.
Go. Write them down. Follow them. Fictionalize from them. Take your time. They’re waiting to show you what you don’t know you understand.
About the Author:
Paul Graham lives in Canton, New York, where he teaches writing and literature at St. Lawrence University. His collection of short stories, Crazy Season, was published by Kitsune Books in summer 2012. He won the 2006 Dana Literary Award for the Novel for A Trained Voice. He also writes nonfiction, and has an essay forthcoming in Best Food Writing 2012. He’s at work on a collection of essays about food and literature titled, for now, Loneliness of Cooks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Excerpt from “Visitation”
It takes brass ones to break into a funeral home. O’Byrne had not yet moved from the sidewalk, where he stared at the hole punched through his beveled glass inlay as if trying to solve an illusion of the early light. The heavy green door hung ajar, its brass fixtures shining, no matter how he changed the angle. A burglary seemed to him a little beyond, on the order of grave-robbing, or collecting molars for gold fillings. What next? A sign on the hearse reading, DRIVER CARRIES NO CASH? This was asking to be haunted, which O’Byrne didn’t believe in, seasonal ghouls and jack-o-lanterns taped to the chiropractor’s window next door to the contrary.
He didn’t call the police. Not yet. It was before seven on a Friday, and nobody else had arrived to work. O’Byrne didn’t think the thieves were still around, and so far it had been a pleasant start to the day. He enjoyed the walk into work, the shortcut through the college campus. In October, the fields and woods smelled sun-dried, spent. There was a taste of wood smoke on the mist. O’Byrne had turned sixty-three in July, and although the dampness sometimes bothered his hip, he liked passing by the dormitories, imagining the young people inside, wrapped in blankets, hushed and vulnerable.
Halfway down the hall he found blood on the floor. He followed the trail of drops around the corner into a wide room where several caskets sat on display. There, he smelled the intruder—sweat and whisky—before he saw him. A young man lay in the casket closest to the door, a gleaming cherry box with brass detailing and an etching of the Last Supper on the lid. O’Byrne couldn’t see his face, only a slice of forehead, a knee propped against the side, the tip of a running shoe, the left arm flung out and crusted with dried blood. There was a lot of blood—on the casket, the satin lining, the floor. Evidently the intruder had punched that hole with his bare hand. Then he’d bled out on the Berber carpet.
O’Byrne murmured a blessing, then took out his phone and dialed.
“Sean, it’s me,” he said. “Have you teed off yet? You have to come down here. Now. We’ve been broken into, kind of. The most creative suicide I’ve ever seen.”
As he was dialing the police, the body shifted and groaned. O’Byrne started, probably the first time since mortuary school. Then he gathered himself and told the dispatcher to send an ambulance as well.
“Who are you?” he asked, but the intruder, a kid who looked about eighteen, didn’t answer. He sat up and reclined with his face in his good hand as if trying to figure out what the hell had happened. He looked gray from the loss of blood and the damage to his hand and arm, which was clearly broken. Glass glinted dully in his skin.
“Do you know where you are?” O’Byrne asked him. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s Ryan,” said the kid.
“Ryan. Okay, Ryan, you’re a student at the college?”
A snicker came from behind the hand. “Not anymore, man. Can I have a glass of water?”
O’Byrne couldn’t help smiling. Never had he seen a corpse become reanimated. By the time they reached him, it was always too late. He got a glass of water from the restroom and watched the boy with a mixture of contempt and wonder until his son arrived, red-faced, still in his golf cleats and gloves, his bald head sweating.
“I thought you said he was dead?” Sean said. He seemed more angered than astonished.
“He was,” O’Byrne said, “but now he’s not.”
Soon after, the police came to examine the door, the blood, the other damage. They took notes and photos. A pair of volunteer EMTs checked Ryan’s vitals on his good arm and stabilized the bad one. “Amazing he clotted,” the lead EMT said. O’Byrne knew her as Tammy Miller. He’d buried her father last fall. “This is one expensive-looking casket.”
“Six grand,” Sean said airily.
The police sergeant asked O’Byrne if he’d found anything else out of order. As O’Byrne shook his head, Ryan leaned over the edge of the coffin and vomited on the floor. Sean whirled on his heel and left the room. “Where do you keep your chemicals?” the sergeant asked.
“In the basement. He wasn’t down there.” O’ Byrne hadn’t checked, but he felt somehow certain.
“You want to press charges?”
O’Byrne thought about it.
Sean returned and tore his golf glove off, the Velcro snapping. “Absolutely,” he said. “You bet.”