Today, we’re thrilled to share this fantastic new craft essay from the author of yesterday’s reprint, Emily Fridlund. Fridlund discusses the potential of not knowing your subject: “I think it’s okay to be uneasy about realism,” she says. “On Not Knowing Just Enough” explores where “Expecting,” Fridlund’s “Baby Story” evolved from, and how Fridlund herself has evolved as writer in the years since penning “Expecting.”
As a writer I’ve come to believe that Show, don’t tell is another means of painstakingly preserving negative space, the way the concrete details point like arrows to the limits of the concrete, or the way the tangible and mundane drape like so many beach towels over the lumpy shapes of the unsayable and extraordinary.
A number of years ago, I wrote a story about a baby. It was one of the first stories of mine accepted for publication, the first piece of fiction I felt an almost animal pleasure while writing. When I think of it now, I always think of it as the Baby Story, though the infant I invented wasn’t very babyish. She shoots exasperated looks, barely tolerates her dad, crawls off and freaks everybody out. I was twenty-four years old when I wrote my Baby Story and pretty clueless when it came to babies. I had little idea when infants sprout first teeth or take first steps. Everything I knew about kids came from mercurial, bored stints at babysitting when I was a teenager. But when I wrote that story, I was still extricating myself from my own childhood tangles, still looking backwards, you could say. And I wasn’t very interested in representing babies as they are generally understood. I wanted to think about how children are sometimes convenient vessels for the unspoken fears of the adults who care for them—uncanny projections, clown-house mirrors—and knowing a little but not too much about babies made it possible for me to test these ideas out.
I say this as a way of suggesting a possibility I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’ve been considering the potential usefulness of not knowing your subject matter as a writer, or, more precisely, knowing enough to do justice to what you don’t know, giving ample space to the test case, the hypothetical. The old adage Write what you know misses something complicated, of course, about the vertiginous work of trailing sentences to their cliff-edge faces and peering down. What’s the point of making up a world that takes for granted the terms of operation upon which others more or less agree? I usually want something else from the fiction I read and write, some unsteadying recognition of how strange and provisional and just plain wrong the accepted terms of the world’s operation often are.