At CJR: New Yorker writers dish about their craft
The New Yorker Festival brought back its collaboration with The Moth again on Friday for “Tales out of School 4,” an adaptation of The Moth’s popular and portable storytelling machine. This time it produced stories about writing for The New Yorker, as told by its by writers. Needless to say, New Yorker devotees packed the room at $50 a head to hear Lauren Collins, Anthony Lane, Rebecca Mead, Nicholas Schmidle, and Lawrence Wright talk about their employer.
So pretty much, if you read The New Yorker, and you’re in that room, you’re going to eat up whatever those writers dish out. Fortunately, there was some interesting content there beyond the little morsels of insight and mild embarrassment that are all but required for a “behind the scenes” special of any sort; each writer on that stage managed to touch on a huge truth missing from many of the polished narratives on the magazine’s pages: The act of reporting and telling stories teaches good writers something new, either about their craft, themselves, or some sort of combination of the two.
Storytelling—the now well-known performance genre where monologue and stand-up comedy meet—is kind of the anti-New Yorker feature. The speaker stands on stage note-free, telling a true story in which the stakes are enlarged under the microscope of the personal, all with a strict time limit. The facts matter, but reported nuance and qualifiers give way to emotional content, epiphany, and empathy in a way that simply doesn’t happen in a 10,000-word piece of longform journalism. Plus, storytelling, while rehearsed — Lauren Collins told me after the event that each writer had worked with storytelling pros to help them “midwife” their narratives for the stage — is different every time. The speaker works to hit a few crucial beats, usually with a dead-set closing line containing some sort of moral, epiphany, or nugget of insight explaining why the story matters. But the turns of phrases, the details, the additions and omissions, can change. It’ll never be as polished as an essay, and that’s part of its appeal.