Episode 4 — Writing with Unknowns
The known unknown is a useful perspective for writing. If you are old enough, you might remember some fairly famous testimony from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who said this:
There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.
In my view, all three are important in the writing process. Our first sentence (last week’s exercise) gives the reader a glimpse. We, the author, know something. As writers we can feel it when an image or a situation or an utterance is the source of a scene and that scene could be a story. We start with a known known.
Most of the time, at the start of a story, I know a little, but I am depending upon the process of writing to know more. Writing, for me, is revelation. And in planting the known knowns onto a page (or screen) I am really saying: let’s see what happens.
Unless you plot every detail and don’t change the plan (something I think very few people can or even want to do), the act of writing is mostly about uncovering the unknowns.
There will be known unknowns that the revelatory act of writing will elicit. For instance, we might know the story we are trying to write is from a boy’s perspective, but we might not know, at the beginning, what the boy’s history is and how that affects whatever is going to happen. But we know that we will need that history in order to develop the character. Every character needs a history. The act of writing should reveal that history (or develop it further than the history the writer at the start of writing the story might think the boy has).
Second, there will be the unknown unknowns. These are often the little details that make the story “real” for the reader. Our boy may have a large cut on his knee, there may be a crow following him around, he may not be living with his parents at the time of the story. These little details spark the readers’ (and likely the writers’) imagination, but they are things that at the start of writing a story we don’t even know we will need/want. The revelatory nature of writing is such that these unknown unknowns may come to us just before sleep, halfway through a sentence, or in the middle of a phone call. They are, I believe, the moments of inspiration that we as writers hope/live for. They will come when we least expect it, but when they come, we know it. I suggest you write these revelations down whenever they happen, on anything you can find (yes, even a paper towel if that’s all you have). These little revelations of unknown unknowns are often fleeting unles they get recorded.
In order to get to the unknown unknowns, we do the chopping wood and carrying water part of writing: getting words on the page. The first few paragraphs are often the source of known unknowns and unknown unknowns.
Here is my first paragraph after the opening line:
“He’ll bolt if the door’s left open,” My uncle explained. “Not because he’s looking for freedom, he’s pretty content here. But he’s curious and he’ll take a few hops out of the cage, then something will scare him and he’ll be gone. He won’t last very long in the forest. So let’s keep him safe.”
Three things occur to me from this paragraph. First, there’s an uncle involved and he gets the first lines. I think that is likely important. Second, the rabbit in the story is somehow important to the uncle. I am curious to see how (a known unknown). The events are taking place near a forest, something I didn’t realise until I wrote the paragraph, but is a nice detail (An unknown unknown discovered).
So for this week, write the first paragraph.
It can be long or short, happy or sad. See if there are any known unknowns or unknown unknowns that the paragraph reveals.