George Saunders appeared at Portland Arts & Lectures on Thursday, October 12. That afternoon he met with a group of local writers and shared his thoughts on the writing life. Kim Stafford was in attendance; he took notes to capture some of his Saunders’ ideas and kindly shared them with us:
George Saunders speaks to writers at Literary Arts, 12 October 2017
Some notes by Kim Stafford
You can teach writing, but it’s hard….
As teachers, we need to act like we know, but what we know keeps changing.
How I write will be different from how you write, but we may have moments of intersection.
To be a writer, start as a reader. Read work by others, then be a careful reader of your own developing drafts.
I had a nun for a teacher in 3rd grade who took me aside one day and said, “You know, we’ve been talking about you the convent. And some of the older sisters think this book is too old for you, but I feel different.” She held out Johnny Tremain. And in that book I came to the sentence “On the island gulls woke.” And I thought, “What if there was a comma: ‘On the island, gulls woke.’” So I put the comma in in my mind, then took it out, and considered the difference. That was the beginning of my writing career.
I went into engineering, and was posted in Sumatra for the petroleum industry. Every four weeks I had two weeks off. In Singapore I would fill a suitcase with books, any books. I didn’t know the difference between good ones and bad ones. And as I read through suitcase after suitcase of books, I realized I would like to be a writer, not an engineer.
As a working-class person I thought I couldn’t write because something in me was missing.
Revising your writing requires imagining a reader—generously.
You become a reader and watch yourself reading a draft of your writing, and try to keep the interest-needle in the positive direction. If it flickers toward the negative, that’s a place to revise.
If I think while I’m writing ‘What do I want to do?” I freeze up. You have to keep going by instinct.
Revising, you listen for the micro-sound of this phrase or that. It’s not just sentences. The piece has to be happening. It comes alive. As you write, it gets more true, more compassionate.
Writing is such a weird, subjective profession, poorly rewarded.
Try to find a method to level out the ups and downs as you go.
What in your process can be your friend in leading you to the next project?
Before you let other people read your draft, you go through it—like cleaning your place before the guests arrive. Get knee-deep in your subconscious inside the story.
Other people’s advice may be helpful, but it will not be brilliant. That part is your job.
In revision, I cut away passages in order to reveal a spaciousness I can work with.
The best response ever was when my wife read a draft, didn’t have time to write a note, so she just left a post-it: “Tears. Send it.”
Hemingway: “Keep it secret, and it gets powerful.” It’s powerful to withhold your work from readers until it’s ready.
Learn your quirks and obey them.
As a short story writer, I waited for the thunderclap: “You’re a novelist!” But it never came.
I made stories, like little yurts, for years, and then the question: “Can you make me a mansion?” That is, a novel. Well, yeah, I can do that: I put a bunch of yurts together” Lincoln in the Bardo.
I wouldn’t say this to non-writers, but with small pieces I want every voice to be spectacular. In the longer work, I can’t do that. With a big cast of characters, well—if you look at the terracotta warriors in the Chinese tomb, they each have minor distinguishing features, and that’s enough.
I write a short story from the back of my head—I could speak it out loud.
You write a book as a writer. But when you read from it on tour, you are a performer. That’s different from being a writer.
I’m a ham. I wanted to be an actor. When you read aloud, you get a 20% laugh bonus.
In the early phase of a project, you are looking at outcome. You have a plan, a plot. This makes for a boring book. Better: Write your way into a dilemma, then deal with it.
You and the form are enacting what the characters are enacting.
The ending—you need to get out the door. You need to end without messing it up. You might end with a question.
Take the thing that bugs you about the story, and put that into a character’s voice: “Why can’t I stay with him?” Then the story will find a way to deal with that question.
I thought writing was literature—out of reach. But the best writing comes out of your life: How do you talk your way out of trouble? Use that voice.
When I was in high school, if you weren’t an athlete, or good looking, you had to be funny, you learned to do imitations. That is, you start to be a writer.
Writing is doing and saying what you do every day—but better, at a higher level.
In Lincoln in the Bardo, memoir is fiction. I put in some made-up history, gave it an attribution, and achieved freedom.
Some books have lots of good stuff, but no forward motion.
Tobias Wolf told me, In your life you only get two or three dream sequences.
If a story freezes up, I ask myself, “What’s wrong with this book?” I answer, that question, then take action.
The magic angel writer’s voice tells you something, and if you listen, you know “I’ve got a book.”
The indispensable interior voice of “I’m doing it because I want to” makes you an artist.
If we didn’t have irrationally strong opinions about content and form, we would not succeed as artists.
I write eight adjectives on the board and ask students to put them in order of best to worst…or eight literary passages: Put them in rank order, effective to ineffective. And when they do it, they all have different orders, I ask them to defend their choices. If you are a writer, you need to have strong opinions, and stand by them.
If you work too hard to be approved, you will fail. You need to think and feel for yourself about what you are doing, and be obstinate.
Einstein: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” So how do you let a story evolve as you are making it?
Have an experience that shifts your paradigm of how the world works—that’s what has to happen in a book.
When I do tongue-in-cheek sci-fi, it comes to life—it works against my tendency to write purple prose. If my prose starts getting lazy, I inject some sci-fi in, and it gets funny.
The terror of repeating yourself, of watching your ideas become armor—you need to overturn your certainties.
You have a nugget of writing, and you ask, “What caused that? What had to come before that? So you write what came before. Then you ask, “What did that cause?” And you write what came after.
Write a set of nuggets, and put them in a sequence, and you have a structure.
When I left on book tour, my wife said, “Stay hydrated—and don’t come home with your head up your ass.”
When you move a written story into a script, you see the structure that will do the work, and you start taking things out.
You have a tiny garden of talent, but you keep adding a row, moving the fence out just a little.
The goal in film: Medium shot of a character changing their mind without words.
Every moment needs to engage the reader, and move the story forward. Every single one.
If your voice asks, “Can I do this…or this?” the answer is, “Yes, if you do it well.”
Say to the story in process, “What’s the problem?” The story will say first, “No problem.” But eventually the story will say, “I’m boring.” Then you ask, “Where?” And you go there and work.
There is no story you can’t finish.
You are in intimate communication with a smart story—it’s like when you reach an impasse with a lover or friend. You say the unsaid thing, and this breaks open the impasse.
Revision is the automatic solution for writer’s block.
Early on, you abandon stories that lock up. Later, you take them on: “I’m going to find a way.”