When someone yells “Boom!” on a sailboat, you are about to get hit by a bar at the base of the sail, unless you duck. “Hard alee” also means something like “duck,” but to the side. You never remember…
“What You Know” is unlike my typical fiction in nearly every way. It’s my first flash piece, though I’ve been writing short stories for decades. Outside of a handful of (bad) poems written when I was very young, this is my first use of the second-person POV in a creative work. Where most of my stories have taken months, even years, to write, “What You Know” spilled out over the course of a few long days. Its final version hews remarkably close to its first draft, where most of my stories have evolved from countless, daily, and often large-scale revisions.
Perhaps the greatest departure from my usual work, however, was the process I used to bring “What You Know” to the page. Where much of my writing begins as a line that’s been skittering around my brain, or with a character speaking, or with an image frozen from some unknown scene, this one began as a deliberate exercise: to confine the story to characters and events close to my own experience. As an undergraduate, I had the good fortune of attending the University of Iowa, where all of my creative writing instructors were quick to dismiss the tired and limiting dictum, “Write what you know,” reminding me and my fellow students that with enough imagination, anything can be “known.” I took the advice to heart (and later to students of my own), with the result that most of my fiction has wandered far from my own experiences: I don’t cavort with elves; I’ve never been a pregnant teen or a member of an all-girl band or the sole survivor of an airplane disaster; I’ve never worked for a small-town newspaper; I don’t spend a lot of evenings flying from the roof of my home.
But sometimes we need limits in order to appreciate the other ways in which we are free. My plan in writing “What You Know” was to explore my childhood for material that would easily lend itself to fiction: some brief snippet from my life that held within it the arc of a story; that bent itself to metaphor; that resonated (at least for me) with truth. I started with a list of things I knew about boating, since my family used to spend a lot of time sailing on Lake Champlain. But as soon as I jotted down something I thought I remembered, something I was certain I knew, I realized I’d never known it, or had known it once, and now it was gone. I tried different material and began different lists, drawing blank after blank after blank. The more I tried to write what I remembered, the more I realized that I had somehow managed to block out most of the details of my childhood. Only the emotions remained. “What You Know” is both the story and result of that discovery.
HEATHER ARONSON’s short stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Mid-American Review, and Witness, as well as in other journals. She holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Arizona and was a Fellow in Fiction at the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Creative Writing. She is a co-curator of the Page reading series in Pittsburgh, where she lives with her husband and, thanks to the pandemic, many of their (combined) five grown children. She is truly grateful for that.