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Surrender control over your stories
George Saunders on the parallel crafts of writing and living
Yesterday evening, I attended George Saunders’ City Arts & Lectures talk in San Francisco for his newest collection of short stories, Liberation Day. Apart from his genuine kindness and conviviality, I was struck by his observation that learning how to write was very much like learning how to live: it all begins by listening to your inner voice and honoring it.
Living is as much a craft as is writing. There are rules and frameworks one can follow, but ultimately, one must define and cultivate one’s own style.
I wish to share some of the notes I took with you last night, in hopes that they’ll be similarly edifying. These notes were taken surreptitiously on my phone in the dark amphitheater; they are not exact quotes but my best attempt at capturing the sentiments.
On how to write a sentence: Just blurt out whatever crap is in your head. The reason you can do that is because you believe so much in rewriting. Don't put a lot of weight on a big idea. Trust that your good taste will assert itself when you reread that sentence, you’ll change it over and over again, and soon it’ll become something with which to work.
This cures you of notion of waiting for the big idea before you can begin writing.
We all live for that moment in art where you can feel the writer suddenly giving it up to the story — but you can’t fake it, and you can’t plan it.
Make a low bar to come in, and the big gamble is that your taste, reasserted over and over, will lead you to something interesting.
On creating characters: It starts with the sentences: if you concentrate on them and try to get them to sound distinctive or funny, then a character will emerge. It’s not a character you’ll necessarily know about, but the sentences will surprise you.
Stories start to get energy when you surrender control over them.
The neurotic quality we all share is a form of ongoing narrative honesty. Writing is an attempt to make an intimate communication between you and your reader which you can only do by honestly watching yourself as your reading.
Practice alertness to what your subconscious is saying — it will reveal itself when you’re playful.
The real subtext of writing is how to find out who I really am.
On how he orders his books: Take index cards with title and first and last line of each story, move them around. The book tells a bigger story depending on how you order it.
On the broader theme of Liberation Day: I crave getting to a place where I feel good all the time: I’m a good person, on autopilot, everything’s fine. Life doesn’t really want us to have that. We crave liberation, but we don’t get it. We posit there are ways to be liberated that end up biting us in the ass — and that’s life.
Pictures the book/life as a long floor full of trapdoors that you continuously fall into. True liberation is realizing that life is just going down the trapdoors.
The reason we go down the trapdoors is because we believe so strongly of the Self. In Liberation Day, people are trying to be good, but are also trying to believe that they are the center of the universe, they’re permanent, and they’re correct. The rollercoaster of samsara can only be escaped by getting out of your Self.
On the stress of contemporary life: Culture itself shifted to a materialist view of world. Now, it’s understood that the supreme good is shareholder value. If you agree with that, you move a step away from human. Humans are getting in the way of the bigger project — systems have become so beautiful and smooth that we don’t feel like we’re betraying humans when we’re serving the system.
If you put any idea in, and let the person who’s saying the idea believe it, the story will gather around the idea and critique it.
Chekhov: “The task of a writer is not to solve the problem but to state the problem correctly.”
The burden to have an opinion about everything is so strong. What’s the opposite? Being open. Fiction, at its best, models that.
Kindness in the American mind is falsely equated to niceness.
Writers are people who learn early on that language is power.
Growing up, if I wanted to say I love you, doing something that would make you life was a good way to do that.
On an absolute vs. relative view of life: Absolute: life is terrible; life is wonderful. Relative: it’s everything — all those things are true at once. Humans are fluid.
A lot of the scripts have been wiped away and there hasn’t been a lot to move in to replace it.
On seeing the human being beneath the drapery: There is a core Buddha-nature in every being, and on top of the perfect, holy thing, we drape many characteristics and habits. But, we often mistake the draping for the person. My hope is that we can see the Buddha-nature when we look at a person, and we’ll be decent to each other.
On class: Terry Eagleton: “Capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body.” If I drop the ball, the system will crush me. My first book came out of this quiet panic: in this culture, if you drop below a certain level, it’s actually okay to let you keep falling, and it’s terrifying.
I started being funny because I was nervous. There was a lot of anxiety about money. In America, if you’re drowning, the one thing you’re not allowed to say is, ‘I’m drowning.’ It started when my kids were little and hasn’t left as a source of angst.
On developing his own voice: Keep the reader in mind as you’re writing. Entertain the reader and treat her like an equal. Imagine you’re the reader, know nothing about the book, and found it on a bus seat. What does she think?
Loved Hemingway, thought writing was going out to do something adventurous and typing it up. Writing was manipulative and not participatory — dumping ideas on the reader. Tried emulating Joyce, was writing a bunch of sentences that didn't mean anything.
The boat of my dreams was sailing away from me — I wasn’t writing anything good. I had a flash over a weekend where I wrote a bunch of silly poems and my wife responded to them in a really positive way that my novel hadn’t done. Realized fun/entertainment was what I should be aiming for.
On not imposing themes before writing: I try not to have any thematic ideas because if I have them, I just execute them. Most younger writers overvalue deciding at the outset. Don’t want anything — just start doing something and then modify to taste. Then it’ll be by definition original because you didn’t know what you were trying to do and you did something different. This hinges on revising a lot.
Samsara is a great source of comedy and plot. We have false idea that when we get X we will be happy, but of course, when we get X, then we want Y. We spend our whole life in this cycle.
On writing honestly: If a story is honest, it doesn’t check out of itself until it has looked under every stone. It is not moral or thematic honesty, but the honesty of your own reaction to the story that you’re working on.
If the story is telling you something, you have to honor it. Honesty is: 1) the story has a mind of its own, 2) I am capable of hearing it, and 3) if I can hear it, I can fix it.
Artistic craft talk is not so different from life talk: if you’re in a situation and you’re uncomfortable, the first thing you do is acknowledge you’re uncomfortable. Then it becomes workable and you can fix it.
You go out in the world and constantly tell yourself a story about what’s happening, and it’s not right. But if you go quiet, you can read the world more correctly, and you can be in it more fully.
Here’s to living, and writing, more fully.
Be my pen pal. 💌