[Write On Wednesday] Can’t And Won’t

Does a story have to have conflict? Does it have to have a beginning and a middle and an end? Perhaps not.

Lydia Davis’ story “Can’t And Won’t” is pages of complaints about life:

My sheets get all twisted in the dryer.

The carrot cake was a little stale.

When I toast the raisin bread, the raisins get very hot.

The bridge of my nose is a little dry.

I’m sleepy, but I can’t lie down.

The sound system in the examining room playing folk music.

I don’t look forward very much to that sandwich.

There is a new weatherman on the radio.

Now that the leaves are off the trees we can see the neighbors’ new deck…

There is no ‘happening’, no crisis, no rising action, but do you get a sense of character? I do.

What is a story if not a portrait of a character or characters?

The Prompt

Write A Non-Narrative Short Story That Allows The Reader To Experience Another Character’s Life


  • You can copy Lydia Davies’s idea and write a story of complaints. Make sure all the complaints belong to one, very specific character. (They can be like you, or unlike you. It can be a secret portrait of your annoying coworker, your ex-mother-in-law, your little brother…) [remember, this is an exercise. If you decide to publish this, you might want to credit Davis as the inspiration!]
  • Write a List (like they do in McSweeneys)
  • The “character” doesn’t have to be one person. It could be an institution: write the Standard Operating Procedures of a big firm.
  • Write about a collection of objects (e.g. The Things They Carried) and allow the reader to infer what they will about the owners.
  • Come up with your own way of writing a non-narrative short story.


2 thoughts on “[Write On Wednesday] Can’t And Won’t”

  1. How odd! I received this post just after writing a brief short story that has no real conflict. I do, though, think too many of my stories don’t have obvious points of conflict, but I’m also a believer in Oscar Wilde’s art for art’s sake mantra, knowing it can be fun to just write a story without all the typical/traditional elements. Truly, it feels good to write after not having written anything for a while, so I’m grateful to know it’s okay to have a story that develops people and ideas and doesn’t have to be a mystery that needs to be solved. Here’s the story I wrote:


    I first learned the truth when I was 10, the year my parents divorced. You split two people up and they can’t keep all the details straight. This is why they separate accused people who might have conspired with each other. You tend to learn more about the other people involved than the speaker. But that speaker doesn’t always realize someone might be snitching on him or her.

    “I don’t know, Goldie. I wanted to tell you, but your father wouldn’t let me. He didn’t want to be the one to ruin it for you. I guess I didn’t either.” Mothers don’t tend to throw anyone else under the bus. In my mind, that might be one reason why women have made great strides in the world in the last century: They accept blame, they make amends, and they earn respect.

    “She’s crazy, baby. I tried so many times to get caught by you or just outright tell you, but it never really worked. Your mother cursed me often when I said I wanted to tell you. It just felt right the older you got. I hated the thought that you’d find out some other way and blame us for not telling you.” Fathers are sometimes a little less forgiving of others’ missteps, but in this case, he wasn’t trying to turn me against my mother as much as he was trying to establish his own place in my life.

    Parents pitting themselves against each other is seldom beneficial to anyone. It brings harm you can’t easily wish away. And my parents were already sharing custody of me, so it didn’t make much sense for them to use Santa Claus as a reason for me to demand more time with one or the other.

    But once I realized we didn’t really have a jolly fat man coming to either place where I lived—and it’s also funny to hear your parents try to explain how they contacted Santa to let him know he needed to deliver presents to a different place on a different day—I started to question anything and everything that might also not be real. The Easter Bunny was an obvious one to start with. When I next lost a tooth, the Tooth Fairy came under question. Of course, I considered God and Jesus and Buddha and even whether Washington and Lincoln existed. You can never be too careful.

    This seemed an easy transition to thinking about the people I wished didn’t exist: Hitler; the assholes who killed JFK and MLK and RFK and John Lennon; and those cancer demons that have ruined and shortened so many wonderful lives.

    When I said I had learned the truth, I meant my truth. I wasn’t going to spoil Santa for anyone else. And I wasn’t going to tell people how to handle Santa—whether exposing the reality or coming to grips with a fantasy dashed by reindeer.

    But every Christmas since, I’ve gone to sit on Santa’s lap anyhow. I’m 30 now, which means I’ve not believed in Santa twice as long as I believed in him. But I go to tell him my dreams and hopes. I never ask for anything for myself. We sometimes have a long chat, extending well past the 10-minute mark, so I’ve learned to go see him when I know children are in school. I know Santa will have plenty of admirers who will boost his self-esteem if he feels low on any given day, but I like being able to remind him that I still retain his spirit in my life. Or, at least, I do try to be giving.

    When my two children were clearly old enough to fully appreciate Santa, which wasn’t too long in their dear lives, I decided to tell them all about Santa. His Turkish origins, his pagan rituals, and his still saintly manner. They didn’t seem to understand it all, but I felt it was best to not hold some illusion over them and take a risk that they’d fault me for not being the one to eventually tell them Santa isn’t real. But I reinforced that what Santa stands for—giving to those who need and being there for people for whatever comforts they desire—is something we can all do and we don’t have to dress up in red suits or try to grow beards.

    I never quite understood how I could see six or seven different Santas throughout my small Indiana town and yet never really question them. Some of my childhood friends have told me now that they’re adults that they’re equally flummoxed why they didn’t wonder aloud about that. One or two did tell me they asked and were told we never actually get to see Santa and that these are his helpers and that they dress like Santa to help put us in that giving spirit.

    And that’s really what Christmas and Santa are all about: selflessly giving of yourself. Of course, the irony about that is that if you give, someone has to receive, which slightly disturbs that “It’s better to give than receive” mantra. It’s like when we tell people to wait for love. Who the hell is doing any looking if we’re all waiting? But those who cherish receiving will double those efforts and give more than they receive.

    I’d like to extend Christmas to 365 days. I think we need to try to give something every day. For free. It doesn’t have to be physical or expensive. The smallest gesture can do so much for someone. And that includes Santa. No matter how many different Santas I’ve seen, almost all of them stand up after our little visit, they give me a thankful hug, and they whisper some final kind words for me. And that’s how I know you don’t have to do anything extravagant to earn someone’s admiration.

    And letting someone know—letting Santa know—he or she is important can make all the difference.

    1. As someone with young children I was torn between applauding your story and hiding the danged thing in case kids come here! However, I’m sure anyone reading this probably has firmly formed ideas about Santa and can withstand your heresy!

      But seriously, I like your conclusions about Santa/Christmas x 365.

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