A story should be honest, direct, loving, restrained

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a New Yorker article written by George Saunders…

I try to read the New Yorker every week. Most weeks I manage at least one article; other weeks, two, three or even four. But every once in awhile, I’m too engrossed in a book, and the New Yorker takes the back shelf.

That’s what must have happened the week of Oct. 22 when the story “My Writing Education: A Time Line,” by George Saunders (pictured above) appeared. Saunders is a short story writer, a professor at Syracuse University and a frequent winner of the U.S. National Magazine Award for fiction.

The New Yorker headline alone would have certainly grabbed me. And once I realized the story was a paean to his Saunders’ writing teachers, Douglas Unger and Tobias Wolff, I would surely have been hooked. Wolff is one of my all-time favourite writers and I think he deserves substantially more recognition than he has. (My favourite books of his are the novel Old School and This Boy’s Life, a memoir.)

Here is Saunders’ description of Wolff:

Toby is a generous reader and a Zen-like teacher. The virtues I feel being modeled—in his in-class comments and demeanor, in his notes, and during our after-workshop meetings—are subtle and profound. A story’s positive virtues are not different from the positive virtues of its writer. A story should be honest, direct, loving, restrained. It can, by being worked and reworked, come to have more power than its length should allow. A story can be a compressed bundle of energy, and, in fact, the more it is thoughtfully compressed, the more power it will have.

Read Saunders’ full story to learn about the impact really good writing teachers can have. It makes me deeply regret that I’ve never enjoyed the tutelage of one.

Thanks so much to my friend Maureen Bayless for posting a link on her Facebook feed so I was able to read the Saunders story.