I Don’t Know

Recently, in a terrific talk for Hippocampus magazine, Gotham teacher Angie Chatman said something that really stuck with me.

Writers build credibility with readers with humility, by saying three words: I don’t know.

Angie was talking about nonfiction, but I think this advice applies to all storytelling. There’s always so much human beings can never know. We might as well admit it.

And yet, so many writers go to great, strenuous lengths to avoid just that. The more they do, the less credible they are.

Once, one of my students wrote about finding out as a child that her father died, and then jumping ahead five years. In the interim, she wrote, not much happened.

Wait a minute, her classmates said. That doesn’t ring true. You had to be grieving. You had to be confused. What are you hiding?

They broke Olympic track and field records with how fast they leapt from, “Something’s missing” to “What are you hiding?”

Turns out, she could not remember those five years, (not uncommon after a major trauma). But avoiding her memory lapse damaged her credibility. Three words would have saved it.

They might have led her to an even stronger story.

“What if we considered this disadvantage from another angle and regarded the state of ‘not knowing’ as fact?” asks Jessica Handler in her essay “Write What You Don’t Know.”

“You could consider yourself oddly lucky,” Handler says. “The absence of these items is a conflict, and without conflict, there’s no plot. The story of not knowing becomes the story.”

Consider how Brian Doyle handles it in his “Essay In Which My Uncle Eddy And I Attend His Funeral:”

HOW CAN THAT BE, you ask, considering that he is . . . demised?

To which I answer, I haven’t the slightest idea. 

But here I am, driving to his funeral in rural Connecticut, and there is my uncle Eddy in the passenger seat, companionably sipping on a Schlitz, as usual. …

I want to ask Uncle Eddy how it could possibly be that he is sitting in my car as we drive through Katonah, New York, on the way to Danbury, but sometimes in life you just roll with what’s happening and try to make sense of it after it happens.

Doyle is clearly taking poetic license here to resurrect his uncle. Why not run with it, invent an entertaining explanation for Uncle Eddy’s presence in the car? Saying, “I don’t know” in the first lines of the story shows readers Doyle is using his license for resurrection only—everything else about Eddy is what he knows to be true.

He has our trust, and we’ll ride along with him, and Eddy, all the way to the church.
Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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