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Truth and Interest

Luzern, Switzerland
“As you get older, you get more confident that if something’s true to you, there is a way to represent it entertainingly. If it happens to a person, it can’t possibly be non-art. So in the story ‘The Tenth of December,’ there’s a moment where, because of the structure, the character’s thoughts turn towards his wife. And I just turned my thoughts towards my wife, you know? What came out was probably the truest thing I’ve ever written about our relationship, for sure. And it wasn’t sappy; it was actually pretty good prose. I wasn’t trying to make it anything other than what it was; I was trying to make it true as quickly as I could. So that was a big moment for me. Even the really positive things that you feel, that you’ve always roped off as being too sappy, if you say them urgently enough — of course, why not?”
- George Saunders, excerpt from the Longform Podcast, The New Yorker Magazine

George Saunder's first sentence is an important one: "...if something’s true to you, there is a way to represent it entertainingly." I believe this maxim forms the spine of most good fiction and memoir. (And is absolutely relevant to nonfiction as well.) Why? Because people read to engage in thinking, and that process, like all of learning in life, is a response to curiosity. For a story to be entertaining is in most instances the ability to arouse emotion and curiosity. If you think back to when you were a child, the power of books had everything to do with a story's ability to snag your imagination and open up worlds that beckoned and delighted, scared and satisfied. As an adult the hunger to learn, the curiosity to follow an idea or subject deeper is a primary motivator in choosing a book to read. And once we have cracked opened those pages, any creeping lack of engagement, any sign of impinging boredom - the emotional flat-line of reader engagement - will be the reason we put that book down, unfinished.

Curiosity. Engagement. Emotion. Entertainment. For the writer, these elements are as daunting and complicated as a technical climb up the sheer face of Yosemite's Half Dome. As writers we know that a reader's interest can be hooked and sustained through good writing craft and the subtleties of technique, but every great story possesses a nugget of magic. That necessary, undefinable element that captures our attention. George Saunders writes about that moment. His personal experience, his truth translated seamlessly to the page. The spark to an intimate author-reader conversation. Honest, truthful, insightful. The door that opens us as readers to our own thinking.

The writer finds a way to sustain exposure by trusting in technique, and backing uncertainty by adopting a fearless attitude to the task. On that sheer rock of narrative it would be impossible to free-climb without faith in one's equipment, technique, and experienced judgment. But bridging uncertainty requires a goodly amount of courage, and comfort with risk. As readers we expect our authors to be unpretentious on the page, and if not fearless, then undaunted. As writers, we know readers will never follow our words down the twisting dark trail of storytelling, with its deliberate shadows and dead ends, without growing curiosity. Readers engage with a journey they feel is both real and fascinating. Writers, where is the cornerstone, your truth in the story? Make it urgent, entertaining, and those books will fly off the shelves.
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