Readings For Writers: Pick of the Week
Every week, a member of the Grub community recommends a book they find helpful or inspirational from a craft perspective. This week, instructor Cam Terwilliger recommends a favorite short story.
One of the most lively parts of my online course, Intro to Fiction, is the discussion of our weekly readings. Not only do these stories introduce the class to exciting writers, but what we learn from them has an incredible impact on what students submit to workshop. Among them, one that always stands out is “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham. An unusually poignant piece of writing, it follows two young brothers named Carlton and Bobby as they grow up in Cleveland during the 60’s.
What is most thought-provoking about “White Angel” is that the story gives away its tragic ending. At the top of the second page, it announces rather casually: “Here is Carlton several months before his death…” Our realization that Carlton will die during the course of the story adds tremendous pressure, making every moment filled with significance. It’s a wonderful trick that shows just how much writers stand to gain by forecasting the future of their plots.
However, the best thing about Cunningham’s decision is that it reminds us that a story is not really about what happens. A story is about how it happens. It’s great if a story has surprising events. But far more important is the task of showing us how those events leave the characters transformed. In “White Angel,” we know exactly what will happen, but that doesn’t “spoil” the story in any sense. We are riveted, waiting to see the consequences unfold. Every time I read it, I can’t help but see the act of storytelling in a new light.
A 2014 James Jones First Novel Fellow, Cam Terwilliger's writing has appeared in a number of magazines, including West Branch, Electric Literature, Gettysburg Review, American Short Fiction and Narrative, where he was selected as one of the magazine's "15 Under 30." His fiction has also been supported by fellowships from the Fulbright Program, Brown University, Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Elizabeth George Foundation, and the American Antiquarian Society. A graduate of Emerson College's MFA, he teaches at NYU when he isn't teaching at Grub Street .See other articles by Cam Terwilliger