The instructor asked us to pick one of the three main characters and write a one-page bio or character sketch, (i.e. where he was born, what he does for a living, married or single, kids? etc.)Well, if you don't know the story, this wouldn't mean much. But the sharp reader working on this assignment soon realizes that Wolff tells us nothing, nothing about the background of these three fellows. The point is that you can write a good story without telling the reader any background. Just start the story wherever the action starts and take it from there.
This is a real eye-opener for me. The writer should know something about the characters so that he can write a "true" story, as my man E.H. might say. But the writer doesn't have to tell the readers what posters the character had on the wall in his childhood room, what he or she majored in, whether he dropped out of high school or she has a Ph.D. I don't need to know if Frank in "Hunters in the Snow" was an electrician or a computer programmer. I don't care if Kenny married his high school sweetheart and has three kids, or if he's gay. Just write the story, tell what happens now.
I'm going through my first (unsold) novel one more time prior to submitting it in a contest. I just cut 17 pages of exposition and background from the beginning and started the story in a new place. And I love it. Thank you, Jim Matthews. You can teach the craft.