“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 page.
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 ball.
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 rest.
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 Train’s April 2012 Family Matters competition. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cirque, Compass Rose, Quiddity, Sanskrit and Rougarou.