George Saunders: an education

Every Monday night, Doug’s workshop meets at his house. Doug’s wife, Amy, makes us dinner, which we eat on the break. We first-years are a bit tight-assed and over-literary. We are trying too hard. One night, Doug has us do an exercise: after the break, we are going to tell a story from our lives, off the cuff. We are terrified. We don’t know any good, real stories, which is why we have been writing all of these stories about kids having sex with crocodiles and so forth. And an audience of our peers is going to be sitting there, wincing or declining to laugh or nodding off? Yikes. We drink more on the break than usual. And then we all do a pretty good job, actually. None of us wants to be a flop and so each of us rises to the occasion by telling a story we actually find interesting, in something like our real voice, using the same assets (humor, understatement, overstatement, funny accents, whatever) that we actually use in our everyday lives to, for example, get out of trouble, or seduce someone. For me, a light goes on: we are supposed to be—are required to be—interesting. We’re not only allowed to think about audience, we’d better. What we’re doing in writing is not all that different from what we’ve been doing all our lives, i.e., using our personalities as a way of coping with life. Writing is about charm, about finding and accessing and honing ones’ particular charms. To say that “a light goes on” is not quite right—it’s more like: a fixture gets installed. Only many years later (see below) will the light go on.
Even Later That Semester
Doug gets an unkind review. We are worried. Will one of us dopily bring it up in workshop? We don’t. Doug does. Right off the bat. He wants to talk about it, because he feels there might be something in it for us. The talk he gives us is beautiful, honest, courageous, totally generous. He shows us where the reviewer was wrong—but also where the reviewer might have gotten it right. Doug talks about the importance of being able to extract the useful bits from even a hurtful review: this is important, because it will make the next book better. He talks about the fact that it was hard for him to get up this morning after that review and write, but that he did it anyway. He’s in it for the long haul, we can see. He’s a fighter, and that’s what we must become too: we have to learn to honor our craft by refusing to be beaten, by remaining open, by treating every single thing that happens to us, good or bad, as one more lesson on the longer path.
We liked Doug before this. Now we love him.

George Saunders offers up a timeline of his education as a writer. It is, as much of his work, wonderful. I'll never forget reading his first short story collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. Every story more astounding than the next, so brilliant and dazzling that you become angry, wondering how something like that is possible from the same corpus of words the rest of us work with.

I loved hearing Saunders' recollections of Tobias Wolff, who taught creative writing at Stanford for many years, too. One of the other life-changing moments for me as a reader was picking up a collection of Wolff's short stories from Green Library when I was an undergraduate and inhaling them over two sleepless days.

Twice in my life I sat in the crowd as Wolff read one of his short stories, and each was memorable, his stentorian voice the perfect instrument for his muscular prose. Some people just look and sound exactly as you'd imagine them from reading their work. Wolff is one of them. I was left with the image of great short story writers as totemic figures.

This Saunders' passage on Wolff is spot on, especially for those who are fortunate enough to have met him:

Toby is a generous reader and a Zen-like teacher. The virtues I feel being modeled—in his in-class comments and demeanor, in his notes, and during our after-workshop meetings—are subtle and profound. A story’s positive virtues are not different from the positive virtues of its writer. A story should be honest, direct, loving, restrained. It can, by being worked and reworked, come to have more power than its length should allow. A story can be a compressed bundle of energy, and, in fact, the more it is thoughtfully compressed, the more power it will have.
His brilliant story “The Other Miller” appears in The Atlantic. I read it, love it. I can’t believe I know the person who wrote it, and that he knows me. I walk over to the Hall of Languages and there he is, the guy who wrote that story. What’s he doing? Talking to a student? Photocopying a story for next day’s class? I don’t remember. But there he is: both writer and citizen. I don’t know why this makes such an impression on me–maybe because I somehow have the idea that a writer walks around in a trance, being rude, moved to misbehavior by the power of his own words. But here is the author of this great story, walking around, being nice. It makes me think of the Flaubert quote, “live like a bourgeoisie and think like a demigod.” At the time, I am not sure what a bourgeoisie is, exactly, or a demigod, but I understand this to mean: “live like a normal person, write like a maniac.” Toby manifests as an example of suppressed power, or, rather: directed power. No silliness necessary, no dramatics, all of his considerable personal power directed, at the appropriate time, to a worthy goal.

Saunders is a prophet, and he most embodies my ideal of writers as sages who can extract the pulp of wisdom from all the Brownian motion of human life.

What Doug does for me in this meeting is respect me, by declining to hyperbolize my crap thesis. I don’t remember what he said about it, but what he did not say was, you know: “Amazing, you did a great job, this is publishable, you rocked our world with this! Loved the elephant.” There’s this theory that self-esteem has to do with getting confirmation from the outside world that our perceptions are fundamentally accurate. What Doug does at this meeting is increase my self-esteem by confirming that my perception of the work I’d been doing is fundamentally accurate. The work I’ve been doing is bad. Or, worse: it’s blah. This is uplifting–liberating, even—to have my unspoken opinion of my work confirmed. I don’t have to pretend bad is good. This frees me to leave it behind and move on and try to do something better. The main thing I feel: respected. Doug conveys a sense that I am a good-enough writer and person to take this not-great news in stride and move on. One bad set of pages isn’t the end of the world.

But beyond just those deep powers of perception, a great writer has the ability to spin a sentence like this with abnormal regularity:

It is as if that is the point of power: to allow one to access the higher registers of gentleness.