Ask the Right Questions and Get No Answers


“Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” I asked my dad.

“What?” he asked.

“Everyone always seems to know where they were when Kennedy was shot, so I just thought I’d ask.”

He shrugged. “I had to work.”

“What do you mean you had to work?” I asked.

“I had to make lunch for 500 people,” he said.

“But don’t you remember what you thought about it or anything?”

“I remember it,” he said. “But 500 people were needing their lunch.”

“Oh,” I said and looked back at the television. “Well then, what did you think about the Vietnam War?” My dad gave me this look as if I’d spoken a foreign language. “Were you for it or against it?” My mother had been against it. She told me once about a high school friend who’d died there.

“I had to work.”

“But didn’t you have some opinion about it?”

“I had to earn a living,” he said. “I didn’t have time for that.”

“But dad.”

“I saw Nixon once.”

“I know.”

“I was in my boat off of Key Biscayne and I saw this man in a suit walking down the beach,” my dad said. “And I thought what kind of idiot wears a suit on the beach? He’s going to ruin his shoes. But he waved to me.”

In fiction I try not to be afraid of asking questions, but knowing which questions to ask and how to listen to the answer is not easy. Sometimes I look at my manuscript and go, “What?” And if someone asks me what the story means or what it is about, I want to say, “I don’t know. I just had to write it.”

That doesn’t seem like a good enough answer.

What kind of questions do you think a writer ought to ask when at the end of the story?

5 thoughts on “Ask the Right Questions and Get No Answers

  1. I think the questions with no answers are the best ones. Acceptable answers are “maybe.” “who knows?” and a simple shrug.

    I think the unknown is where our subconscious gets to work.

    And maybe when they ask you what it’s about, you should answer, “What do you think it’s about?” That’s the best response, anyway. It’s not really about what sense or nonsense we make of our stories, but how the reader feels and what they think.

    I think you do your job when you let your I don’t knows lead you.

  2. You know, you could come up with a book of your blog posts with the writing questions at the end of these little vignettes and call it “Thinking about Writing,” or “Finding inspirations from Real Life” or something. Because your vignettes are all very powerful.

    Honestly, I don’t come here as much for the thoughts on writing as for your stories.

  3. “And I thought what kind of idiot wears a suit on the beach? He’s going to ruin his shoes. But he waved to me.”

    Oh my gosh. That is just a great moment in dialogue writing, and it doesn’t much matter if your dad really said it that way or you helped it along or made it up altogether.

    I’m suspicious of the words “The End” when I type them. That “end” sounds a little too much (maybe just if heard in a NJ accent) like “AND…?” Which is the worst question to have to face, especially if unsure of the answer (which I usually am) at the end of the story.

    I like Rowena’s answer. “Let your I don’t knows lead you.” Somebody could make a mint putting that on a T-shirt and selling it at writers’ conferences.

  4. That’s a great story because I feel in your writing that your father certainly did have thoughts on these events, but he didn’t feel like sharing them with you. And maybe he was preoccupied with work, so it was easier for him to give a half-truth.

    I don’t ask a lot of questions when I’m writing. I just write and like you, I just write it because I had to. Or because that’s just the way it came out.

  5. sesgaia

    When I ask my mother about my childhood or adolescence she inevitably answers “I don’t remember” which I suspect is half true, that other half being that if she doesn’t answer, she doesn’t have to grapple with what happened or own it. I find in writing that I tend to keep pushing for, if not the right answer, at least a response. Not responding at all feels like evasiveness, or not caring. “So what happened then?” is my favorite question, even if the answer is made-up. I was no doubt one of those kids who endlessly asked, “why?”
    As for my writing, when I’m done, I’m done. I can hardly bring my self to re-read it, let alone discuss it or ask myself questions about it. I’m on to the next “what happened then?”

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