Courting the Place Where Anything Can Happen: Openness to the Unexpected

by Scott Elliott


One of the most dubious-sounding pieces of advice teachers of creative writing sometimes hear themselves offering their students is “make sure you don’t know where you’re going when you set out to write a story, essay, or poem.” This advice flies in the face of what younger students hear in their early writing careers about careful plans—maps, lists, outlines, and other devises and activities meant to help students chart exactly where they’re going, preferably in five neat paragraphs, before they begin the actual writing.

A host of writers have addressed the benefits of figuring things out as we go, of learning what we think as we write it down, as opposed to following a rigid plan. In his 1987 essay “Not Knowing” Donald Barthelme claims that “the writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.” And, further, writes Donald B., “The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.” [1] If the writer makes it up as he or she goes along, allowing room for unexpected events and for the crackle of pleasurable language moments erupting in bursts along the way, the reader will feel the writer’s pleasure in having taken the risk involved in not having a rigid plan and discovering the best unexpected words and actions as she goes.

I once heard the poet Donald Revel advise poets to be very careful to be careless when they set out to write poems, meaning, I think, that they should be careful to get themselves to a mental space where spontaneity is possible, that they should be careful not to be rote or predictable, that they should be open to flashes of insight, unexpected language that will only sneak past the would-be poet’s regular gatekeepers if the gatekeepers are standing down, not around to catch the “wrong thing” that might also be the brilliant unexpected thing. The poet should be in a position to surprise herself.

Short story writer Flannery O’Connor has similar things to say about symbols in a work of fiction– that they shouldn’t be planned in advance but should arise organically when certain details in a work take on a natural significance on their own as the work progresses. Of her story, “Good Country People” she writes,

“When I started writing that story, I didn’t know there was going to be a Ph.D with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women I knew something about, and before I realized it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out this was what was going to happen, I realized it was inevitable.”[2]

Raymond Carver, discussing how he reacted to the news that O’Connor and others didn’t know where their work was going when they set out to write, says in his essay “On Writing” that the knowledge that other writers worked this way came as a relief from the burden of feeling like he had to know exactly what he was doing when he set out. He writes

“it came as a shock that she [O’Connor], or anyone for that matter, wrote stories in this fashion. I thought this was my uncomfortable secret, and I was a little uneasy with it. For sure I thought this way of working on a short story somehow revealed my own shortcomings. I remember being tremendously heartened by reading what she had to say on the subject.” [3]

Robert Frost’s quote—“no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader”– also speaks to the relationship between not knowing what will happen in the writing and the effect this might have on a reader’s experience. Vladimir Nabokov once said of his own writing process that he writes in a way that will makes the hair on the back of his own neck stand on end. This will only happen when the writer is in the kind of livewire position of not knowing what’s going to happen next, when there’s room for the unanticipated, and this comes through the surprise of living an experience as we’re writing it.

Given the preponderance of writers weighing in on the importance of this surprise in the process, I wanted to say some words today about the zone one might try to enter in writing literary fiction, especially, as that’s my primary genre– (but this can apply to any genre)– where the best kind of unexpected surprises will be allowed to find their way into the work.

[Here, I would advise readers of this essay to read Donald Barthelme’s short story “The School” before continuing.] [4]

In an essay titled “The Perfect Gerbil,” a smart reading of Donald Barthelme’s short story “The School” George Saunders writes a few things relevant to a discussion of not-knowing, surprise, and entering the space where anything could happen, both in the writing and the reading of a story. One review of the collection The Braindead Megaphone, where this essay appears, by the way, says that this essay gives the reader an MFA’s worth of material on writing fiction. Saunders has the following to say about the surprising elevated diction two thirds of the way through this story: “Without worrying about whether it’s allowed, or will be understood, or is logical within the world of the story (or whether the workshop will tolerate it), [Barthelme] races off in the direction the story is taking him, appropriate diction be damned, trying to get the story to answer the question the thing’s been asking all along: What are we to make of death? How are we to live in a world where death is king? We follow because we find his courage thrilling.” [5]   Later, Saunders, who also notices that the story is a pattern story that finds a way to break the pattern it sets up in a satisfying way, has the following to say about the story by the time we get to its last paragraph:

“Barthelme can end this thing anyway he pleases. The essential work has been done. If the narrator begins making love to Helen, that’s good. If he declines, also good. The air is charged with meaning. It is everywhere we look. It seems he’s going to pass—he kisses Helen on the brow—but we sense that he and Helen may very soon be demonstrating some lovemaking, if only to one another, possibly in Helen’s sparse apartment. Everything has changed between them. Suddenly there is death in the room, but also life, and love. The reader is satisfied: so much has happened, in so short a time and in such an unexpected way. It could end with a simple line: ‘I looked at Helen, and she looked at me.’[6]

Saunders then goes on to praise the last move Barthelme makes: the perfect, funny, ambiguous gerbil, something we could not have anticipated, the delightful unexpected moments life can provide as a possible balm for the fact informing all stories—that we are alive and dying.

This orientation toward the act of writing unseats knowing in favor of intuition, planning in favor of spontaneity, and following a map in favor of discovery outside the map’s boundaries through the process of writing.

How do we get to that place where we have a riveted reader and we can do anything we like? What does it mean in the act of writing to give ourselves room to not know so that we may benefit from the surprising developments that might arise from this orientation?

One way of getting into this zone might come through living as much as possible in the world of the story we’re writing, moment to moment and close to the action, concentrating on furnishing the concrete, specific details necessary to help readers experience what the characters are experiencing rather than the broad outlines of the story, though we keep these in the back of our mind. Flannery O’Connor has said that writing fiction is a dirty job and that if you scorn getting yourself dirty it’s not a grand enough job for you. A lot of the trouble in fiction comes in finding inventive ways to get onto the page what “really” happened instead of what one thinks should happen, getting to the perfect concrete, sensual details that help conjure an experience rather than the convenient abstractions that merely gesture at, or, worse, falsify the experience.

A good example of the strange, unexpected, close-to-the-ground, or, in this case, water, kind of detail we discover if we’re writing close an experience shines through in Stephen Crane’s 1897 story “The Open Boat.” Crane writes,

“There was a long, loud swishing astern of the boat, and a gleaming trail of phosphorescence, like blue flame, was furrowed on the black waters. It might have been made by a monstrous knife. Then there came a stillness, while the correspondent breathed with the open mouth and looked at the sea.

Suddenly there was another swish and another long flash of bluish light,and this time it was alongside the boat, and might almost have been reached with an oar. The correspondent saw an enormous fin speed like a shadow through the water, hurling the crystalline spray and leaving the long glowing trail.” [7]

Imagine how much emptier this scene would be, how it would fail to help us experience the moment if Crane had written merely “the correspondent saw a shark going by the boat.” The writer who can remind us of the magic of feeling like we’re living an experience, by echoing the way we take in that experience through the senses, the writer who can find the right sensual details that echo the superabounding richness of experiences afforded by a human life does so, not through grand, abstract ideas, but by paying attention to his or her own life and then by furnishing the concrete sensual details, the language to help readers live those moments. We hear the shark and see the phosphorescence, or at least I do, even though we’re tucked up in bed with a book miles from the sea.

Perhaps an obstacle to preceding without knowing and thereby getting into that place where anything could happen, is the fear of looking foolish, the worry that absent a firm plan an empty page might stay empty. Or, that pages may scroll by with no air charged with meaning. There’s anxiety in not knowing what’s going to happen when one sets out, unease, perhaps, in trusting to an intuitive leap as opposed to the safety of a plan. There’s comfort in having one’s work clearly cut and laid out. Could it be that some trace of the risk the writer takes in not having a solid plan is the very thing readers sense and appreciate because it feels like the uncertainty of our own narratives-in-progress, the experience of not knowing we have in our lives from moment to moment? Perhaps we sense and appreciate as readers that the writer has left the easier territory of conscious, planned thought, of manners and a party line, to enter the more unpredictable zone of chance and mystery, the zone of what’s possible. Perhaps some risk and the attendant anxiety translates into exhilaration and joy for writer and reader once the words are found. To quote Nabokov again: “The pleasures of writing correspond exactly with the pleasures of reading, the bliss, the felicity of a phrase is shared by writer and reader: by the satisfied writer and the grateful reader, or—which is the same thing—by the artist grateful to the unknown force in his mind that has suggested some combination of images and by the artistic reader whom this combination satisfies. “ [8]

Perhaps some of this anxiety, especially if it’s paralyzing close to the outset, can be alleviated if we acknowledge that spontaneity doesn’t necessarily mean spur of the moment. Getting something right may take a lot of time and emerge through tasks assigned to the writer’s subconscious mind to get him or her to the place where she or he can relinquishing conscious control of a scene to the subconscious logic, a buried intuitive hunch that reveals itself as the best choice. It may be that a dream, like a message from beyond, will point the way after an initial draft is already complete. There are many cases of writers completing a manuscript and setting it aside for a span of time in an attempt to gain the objectivity necessary to judge its fitness. It may take years to achieve the perfect inevitable, unexpected direction.

Something else we might do in entering the writing zone might be to strive for objectivity, to relinquish all ties, as much as we can, to our subjective reality. In the space of a fiction, and especially if protagonist is close to us, thinly veiled autobiography, it may be a good idea to take steps to distance the protagonist from ourselves in an effort to attempt objectivity. When writing characters unlike ourselves, we might tread with special care (to be “careless”) and write with a fine-tuned attempted-empathy meter. The dictator, the murderer, the person far from our age, gender, or politics have worldviews all their own and particular reasons for why they do the things they do that make perfect sense to them. This means giving priority to an objective but authentic amorality that might include heinous crimes, scenes of utter depravity, and characters behaving badly with no overt judgment. It means depicting the scenes as accurately as possible unclouded by any moral proclamations from the author, scenes that remain true to what happens that leave the reader to judge.

Anton Chekhov once defended himself against the charge of immorality in a letter to his friend book publisher A.S. Suvorin as follows:

“You abuse me for objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil, lack of ideals and ideas, and so on. You would have me, when I describe horse-thieves, say: “Stealing horse thieves is an evil.” But that has been known for ages without my saying so. Let the jury judge them; it’s my job simply to show what sort of people they are. I write: you are dealing with horse-thieves, so let me tell you that they are not beggars but well-fed people, that they are people of a special cult, and that horse-stealing is not simply theft but a passion. Of course it would be pleasant to combine art with a sermon, but for me personally it is extremely difficult and almost impossible, owing to the conditions of technique. You see, to depict horse-thieves in seven hundred lines I must all the time speak and think in their tone and feel in their spirit, otherwise, if I introduce subjectivity, the image becomes blurred and the story will not be as compact as all short stories ought to be. When I write, I reckon entirely upon the reader to add for himself the subjective elements that are lacking in the story.” [9]

Another aspect of this distancing should involve letting our characters make mistakes. Charles Baxter’s essay from his 1994 book Burning Down the House “Dysfunctional Narratives, Or Mistakes Were Made” warns against protecting characters or letting our protagonists be mere victims in our stories instead of flawed and complex, three-dimensional human beings. Baxter suggests that fiction can only remain vital if it is willing to let characters make interesting mistakes and to suffer the consequences of those mistakes. Overprotecting our characters, letting them be mere passive innocent victims, could be seen as a species of control on the writer’s part, as opposed to the messy carelessness and not-knowing beforehand that will lead to more interesting situations and fictions in which the reader has the sense that anything could happen. [10]

Just as a protagonist who makes interesting mistakes can give a short story the push it needs into the zone where anything can happen, so to can a strong antagonist (or seeming-antagonist) upset a reader’s comfort level, upend their confidence that they know what will happen next. If the writer is keeping close to the action, zoomed in to what’s happening on the page with no dominating preconceptions about what might happen so that it’s as if he or she is living it, the writer will feel as the antagonist feels, see the world through Iago’s or Roskolnikov’s eyes and the reader will sit up and take notice, perhaps recognizing the less beneficent and flawed parts of themselves.

Letting bad things happen, offering space or at least a nod to the existence of the deepest depths of depravity, may be seen as another signal to readers of the degree to which a writer is willing to relinquish control, brave enough to face up to this kind of depravity in the world. When writers are willing to engage directly with depravity, to face up to deep dark truths, to acknowledge and explore some of the worst things that happen, a reader, realizing that these writers are willing to sate into the abyss, sit up and take notice. As Saunders put it, the air is charged with meaning. These writers put characters in real danger, or worse, so that the reader squirms in the knowledge that this story will not shy away from such things, just as life will not shy away from such things. As readers, once we see that the writer’s vision is capacious enough to offer the full range of human experience and emotions and that there is no safety net to catch characters, our interest quickens, our heart rate goes up, our skin tingles, the hair at the back of the neck goes up. We’re not safe. The writer was willing to “go there,” to open up this experience for us on the page. Anything can happen, including the worst.

This is, perhaps, why fiction that wishes to make a narrow political argument is not as successful in a literary sense as literature with no detectable political agenda. In politically motivated fiction that does not pay enough attention to building its world and characters, no matter how correct and righteous the cause, we’re aware that the deck is stacked in favor of one side against another and this bias leaks into every scene, infects the characters who may begin to seem like puppets for ideas rather than characters a reader can credit, characters who act as the complex, contradictory people we know.

This position on writing depravity and darkness should come with the corollary that sometimes the best route to suggesting the depraved in all of its horror is not direct but oblique: at the end of William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily,” for example, we’re so unsettled by the single iron grey hair on the pillow beside the corpse of Miss Emily’s one-time carpet bagging love, Homer Baron, because it is an index for the fact that Ms. Emily Grierson may have been sleeping with this decaying corpse for a number of years. The power of the detail rests in the fact that this scene (or scenes) hasn’t been shown to us but that such scenes—was this habitual?—have been suggested off stage making us wonder what’s gone on in that old house. It’s more powerful for its mystery and the mystery is sharply focused in the single image of the iron grey hair at the end of the story. [11] The poet Wislawa Szymborska is famous for finding wonderfully unexpected angles onto subjects. Her poem “The Terrorist, He’s Watching” gains its power, not from an explosion but by showing a café being watched by a terrorist in some ordinary moments of its existence before an explosion. [12] In Jim Heynen’s story “What Happened During the Ice Storm” the cessation of violence at the end and the tension generated when some boys wait to decide whether or not to kill a group of helpless baby pheasants whose eyes are frozen shut, is enabled because earlier in the story, the adult men of the community have skated out and killed pheasants. The direct mention of violence, the fact that the story acknowledges it, allows for the restraint at the end to carry more weight. More on this later.

If we dive into our stories not knowing what’s going to happen but trusting in the gift that set the story in motion in our mind–the initial image or spark, the feeling, or general shape that brings us to the page– we will give ourselves gifts of the best kind. If we are writing immersively, as if we’re living in the worlds we’re creating, and not taking sides, it’s possible that we will have unknowingly given ourselves gifts in the opening or in the middle section of the story that will come to our rescue when we’re wondering how to fashion that most difficult of things–a satisfying end. Some detail mentioned in passing, seemingly unimportant to the story’s plot, some small external or internal detail we’ve given to a character and almost forgotten until we’re stuck, will suddenly come into focus as central to the story, the key to unlocking a satisfying ending—one that is both surprising and inevitable. This will often happen when we’re stuck for what might happen next or trying to avoid the more obvious, conscious ending toward which the story had been plodding. The detail put on the page with no knowledge of its importance– and, so, with none of the trumpeting that might attend the over-adorned details too well known to be important– was a gift, it turned out, more valuable for our not knowing it was a gift. The writer’s surprise that the detail will play such an important role is also the readers’ surprise. Robert Boswell’s essay “Narrative Spandrels“ in the anthology Bringing the Devil to His Knees, acknowledges the moment when minor details come to play important roles, likening them to the spandrels in cathedrals that serve no structural purpose but are necessary for the seemingly more important arches. In cathedrals these elements provided opportunities for further artistry even though they weren’t thought to be crucial to the structure. [13]

Let me push back against myself a bit and offer a few points of clarification, out of concern that we might all go away thinking that a plan is never a good idea in fiction writing. The no-plan-plan I’ve been discussing does not come with no seed or idea at all, with no volition bringing the writer to the page. The writer launches into a story with some idea of what will happen, something informing the writing—an emotion pushing it forward for which the writer is looking for a shape, a haunting image, a fascinating snippet of language that seems to contain a story in itself, a clear sense of a character or characters, a clear sense of place, some sense of a hazy burgeoning shape for the whole thing, an impression of what will happen and the atmosphere of those scenes. What I’m setting forth here isn’t an argument against plans, but it is an argument for the benefits of flexibility in the writing itself, for room for invention within the confines of a loose, pragmatic structure that comes into focus, shifting as necessary, as it’s being made.

The argument against too rigid a plan is also not an argument against great care in the expression the closer we get to a finished story, essay, or poem. To bring any moment off, to give it the specification necessary to help readers feel they’re living it, we need, to quote Nabokov again, “the precision of the artist” in the language, line by line, word by word.

It’s worth saying, too, that the not-knowing a writer brings to his art is in some ways willful; the writer senses something forming but doesn’t think about it too much, choosing, instead, to focus on the details of a particular moment in a particular scene at hand. Since the world cup has just been on this past summer, an analogy might be found in the way a soccer player senses a play developing downfield, but must deal with the immediate attacks from players on the other team closer at hand. The soccer player doesn’t stop to think about the play he or she senses developing; he or she acts on hard won instinct to help it happen, making the necessary moves and passing the ball in good faith. It is the acting in faith that may surprise the soccer player when the play downfield happens, either precisely as, or in a different way from, the way it seemed to be forming. This willful not knowing on the part of the writer, this being careful to be careless, allows the inchoate juices of a story, poem, or essay, to remain intact. This ,though it may seem ironic, is also an argument for practice in writing, for getting enough practice like an athlete so that decisions that may take an amateur a long time become second nature and so that a writer can sense the myriad problems that can get in the way and steer clear of them before they have any effect on the project. Or, to put it more positively, so that the writer can intuit a brilliant possible word or action that will serve perfectly for the moment and also sense, without worrying about knowing too much about it, a larger looming shape that might not come to fruition for many pages. To think about what will happen too much may be to risk writing something devoid of vital juices, something canned, painted by numbers, lacking in fundamental accuracy and invention.

To push back against myself a bit more, I’d like to say that the long battle that is writing a novel, with a coherent central narrative question (or questions) goes better with some kind of a plan, lest the would-be novelist wander years off course. One of my teachers in graduate school would say to would-be novelists that you can get from New York to St. Louis without a map but it will take you a long time and that you might as well have some kind of a map. I would say to would-be novelists that in undertaking the writing of a novel some kind of plan is advisable, but this doesn’t cancel the importance of spontaneity in language and in characters’ actions line by line.

Earlier in this talk I mentioned the short story “What Happened During the Ice Storm” by Jim Heynen. Forgive me if you’ve read and studied this one before, but I think it might furnish a second good, short example of a story, though a less postmodern one, that enters the zone I’m talking about. Let’s read it.

Just as George Saunders notices the way in which Donald Barthelme has his readers right where he wants them and can do whatever he wants by the penultimate moment of “The School,” I would argue so, too, does Jim Heynen bring readers into a place where he can do anything he wants in the penultimate moment of this more traditional realist short story. [14]

In this story I always like to point out to my students, or get them to notice themselves, the ways in which Heynen clearly knows he has beguiled his readers into rapt anticipation going into that second to last paragraph. Note how, after the prospect of clubbing the pheasants (this act of violence that is now one possible option) and the question of what the boys will do has been raised, he extends the moment of suspense for the entire paragraph, the longest in the story, a precious commodity in a story so short, reveling in this zone where it could go any one of several ways. He has raised the spectre of a violent choice for the boys with that “bang!” eight lines in, and then lingers after further suspenseful moments in that zone leading up to the answering “shhh”. Note, too, how he makes us wait through a paragraph break for that “shhh”. Also, note the imagery he uses–the egg imagery that emphasizes the fragility of this fraught moment in which anything can happen, perhaps also the birds’ closeness to eggs, their fragility and vulnerability, the boys’ initiation into an adult world, or their potential to change the world, and more important, in which we’re invested in what happens. This might serve as a good example of what the zone of anything can happen feels like in a short story and of the careful choices that emerge through the writing process that help readers re-experience the richest moments of life in all of their unpredictability in the best-achieved of such moments.


[1]Barthelme, Donald. “Not Knowing.” Not Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme. Ed. Kim Herzinger. New York: Random House, 1997. 11-24

[2]O’Connor, Flannery. “Writing Short Stories.“ Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 1969, P. 100

[3]Carver, Raymond. “On Writing.” Fires. New York: Vintage, 1989. 28-39

[4] Barthelme, Donald. “The School” Sixty Stories. New York: Penguin, 1981. 309-12

[5]Saunders, George. “The Perfect Gerbil.” The Braindead Megaphone. New York: Bloomsbury, 2008. 175-85

[6] Ibid.

[7]Crane, Stephen. “The Open Boat.” The Story and Its Writer. New York: Bedford/St. Martens; 8th edition, 2010. 271-86.

[8]Nabokov, Vladimir. Interview. Toffler, Alvin. Playboy Magazine. January 1964.

[9] Chekhov, Anton. Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters. Rosamond Bartlett, Ed. New York: Penguin. 2004.

[10]Baxter, Charles. “Dysfunctional Narratives, Or Mistakes Were Made.” Burning Down the House. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 1997. 27-50.

[11]Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily” The Story and Its Writer. New York: Bedford/St. Martens; 8th edition, 2010. 314-42.

[12]Szymborska, Wislawa. “The Terrorist, He’s Watching.” View With a Grain of Sand. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company. 1993. 108-9.

[13] Boswell, Robert. “Narrative Spandrels”. Bringing the Devil to His Knees. University of Michigan Press. Ann Arbor: 2001. 138-146.

[14]Heynen, Jim. “What Happened During the Ice Storm.” You Know What is Right. North Point Press. New York: 1985.