The other day, a college student sent me an autobiographical essay to read, following my visiting lecture to his creative-writing class. I had written my e-mail address on the white board, and he was the only student who took me up on my general offer of help. What I received wasn't well written. It suffered from too much telling and not enough showing—a common shortcoming in student narratives—but buried in its moony diary entries was the germ of a compelling story. I won't spoil it here, but seeded in the essay—as I saw it—was the hook of a young man's shocking decision to walk away from the pinnacle of his adolescent dreams in order to pursue a far less certain adult future. A journey of destiny aborted and reimagined, a tale of courage and risk. Potentially more than a typical student essay.
As my wife and kids watched a TiVoed Glee, I wrote several paragraphs of encouraging and, I hoped, constructive editorial notes, and didn't give it much more thought until I received an e-mail from the student two days later. He graciously thanked me for my comments and wrote ecstatically that his rough piece had just been accepted for publication by The New Yorker online! Apparently, I wasn't the only one who recognized an undeveloped story lurking within the wandering pages. According to him, "I met with the editor I'm going to work with, and it might as well have been you talking." Lucky me.