Teachers on the faculty of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers have contributed twenty-six short stories to The Story Behind the Story. The fiction is followed by a section called “About the Story." Each “About the Story” details the author’s ideas, inspirations, drafts and personal experience -- generally whatever directly affects the writing of the story featured in this anthology.
The writing life is readily romanticized. We envision the author writing compulsively, never satisfied, anxious to capture his ideas on paper before they disappear. Certainly there is a cachet to such a life, but writing is, most of all, hard work. A story must be carefully nurtured from inception to a workable format, then shaped into the finished work.
There is one pivotal question about writers: Is this talent genetic, or are there skills that can be learned? In the introduction to The Story Behind the Story, Richard Russo addresses the problem with this retort: writers are both the same and different. If writing can’t be taught, those who want to write can learn. With authors as mentors, giving advice to aspiring writers, they can master the needed skills. However, “artists seldom progress in a predictable, linear fashion." A writer may be good before he is competent; craft and experience can certainly be taught, as well as interesting characters, the story from different points of view and realistic dialogue.
This book is especially valuable because of the generosity of veteran authors sharing their experience and guiding the apprentice through the necessary elements of the craft. Following the suggestions of the authors, shared ideas and discussions on problem-solving build an energy that inspires the novice writer to experiment with a variety of approaches. Even for veteran writers, a new story provides an opportunity for discovery. Yet each author uses his own method, often wildly dissimilar from other authors. There is no right or wrong way. Rather, each writer forges his own path. There is another phenomenon that occurs, what Russo refers to as “cross-fertilization”, when the solution to the story pays off by suggesting yet another, or stimulating a thought process that leads to the completion of a story. There is no formula; each writer perfects his skills in a very personal manner, tailored to his own needs.
The author list contains some of the finest names in contemporary fiction, including Margaret Livesey, Charles Baxter, Judith Grossman, Stephen Dobyns, Pablo Medina and Andrea Barrett. What is extraordinary about this literary treasure is the authors’ generosity in sharing their personal writing experiences. Most avid readers (and lovers of good literature) are filled with curiosity about the nature of inspiration and the actual process reaching the final draft. Most of us reap the rewards of a writer’s hard work without an awareness of the actual struggles involved.
This book gathers such a fine array of stories that the reader will recognize a variety of approaches, styles and methods, more than enough to work with, a hands-on guide for the willing. There may be a few lines from each “About the Story" or one specific author that triggers that sudden recognition of a solution. This book is of inestimable value to readers and for those who aspire to write, but need the extra guidance so freely given in the anthology. Each author shares a piece of his art and his heart, offering a myriad of ideas, suggestions and, most importantly, inspiration. I have marked my favorites (so far) and keep The Story Behind the Story on my nightstand, a ready reference and a reminder of the personal nature of the process, lessons on the art of writing, a constant and valued resource.