It’s a liberal arts story.
Guy graduates from a reputable school in 1981 with a degree in exploration geophysics and goes to work in the oil fields of Indonesia.
An observer at heart, guy begins to feel the pull of a different calling. Working four weeks at a time in those fields, he buries himself in books, reading suitcases full of them in his down time, running the gamut from Norman Mailer to Jackie Collins.
A fateful decision to swim in a river infested with monkey feces lands him with an illness that brings him back to the States.
A series of interesting, but odd, jobs occupies his return until he discovers that writing is something that one might use to be able to make a living. Eventually, he applies to graduate school, earns a master’s in creative writing and begins a stint as a technical writer.
He publishes his first book in 1996 and sees some of his short stories and travel pieces published in publications like The New Yorker and GQ and also earns a teaching position at Syracuse University.
Since then, he’s published multiple novellas and short story collections and earned a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Earlier this year, he released Tenth of December, a book the New York Times called the “best book you’ll read this year,” and is a finalist for the National Book Award.
It may have taken George Saunders a while to find his calling, but readers are sure glad he did.
Saunders brought those credentials and one more – the Will Hays Jr. Visiting Writer – to campus this week, where he read from Tenth of December and took questions from a standing-room-only crowd at Korb Classroom, had lunch with a handful of senior creative writing majors and sat in on an introduction to creative writing class in Center Hall.
Sanders’ goal when visiting with young writers is simple: connect with the written word.
“I think the main thing would be to make readers out of them,” he said. “To convince them that this life of reading and writing is interesting and lively and relevant to them. I love to talk process.”
He has an engaging and direct style, especially when it comes to his process, because Saunders prefers to share what he’s learned. There are no airs or secrets.
“It’s easy to make up a schtick about (process) that makes you look smarter than you are,” Saunders explained. “My process is a know-nothing deal. It’s just reacting to what you’ve written. I think that empowers the kids to realize that there are a lot of different ways to do it.”
One of the seniors to chat with Saunders over a Sparks Center lunch was Chet Turnbeaugh ’14.
“First, it was a treat to be able to get an hour with someone who is a master of creative writing,” he said. “Second, I was really impressed with his openness, as well as the genuineness of his answers. His call to get to work ‘digging your garden’ as a writer really resonated with me.”
In essence, one has to get busy at his craft – reading, writing or editing. Young writers may lack the sharpness that experience brings, but the fundamentals are there.
“If they’ve read a story, they know what they think about it,” Saunders said. “They may want to refine those reactions, but the critical impulse and the pleasure in reading is in all of us. It’s not an esoteric, mystical thing. It’s reading, noticing your own pleasure in it and talking about it. Anyone can do that.”
Such a discussion was influential to Scotty Cameron ’14, who said that lunch with Saunders would carry an impact on his future efforts.
“The exchange was extremely important,” said the senior from Rushville, Ind. “I’d like to be a short story writer, so reading his stuff, and how good it is, really made it cool to talk with him. It’s going to open new ideas that I haven’t yet thought of and validate what I already do.”
Saunders himself has received similar validation from impactful moments of his life, whether it was watching people during parties his parents hosted (“When I was younger, I would say that I was a doer, but the tendency to observe was always pretty strong,” he says) to the books he discovered in the wilds of Sumatra.
“It (Sumatra) was the first time I ever had time to direct my own reading,” Saunders said. “It was nice because if you picked out a dumb one or a hard one, you had nothing else to read, so you’d work through it. It was wonderful. It was like a boot camp in refining your judgment.”
Saunders’ judgment has served him well since, capped by a monstrously successful 2013. A year that could get better as the National Book Award winners will be announced Nov. 20.
“This year has been amazing,” said Saunders. “It’s the year you kind of dream of. Fiction is what I love and for this one to actually sell (Tenth of December) was surprisingly gratifying to me. I thought it didn’t matter to me, but it was heartening.”
Don’t expect Saunders to get big headed any time soon. His work has a tendency to keep him grounded.
“Luckily, I have a book at home that I’m halfway through and it’s is a big mess. So every time I go home, the book will go, ‘Hey Mr. Big Shot, I still suck,’” he said, perhaps only half joking.
Whether that book survives the editing process remains to be seen, but most of Saunders’ ideas start very simple and grow from there.
“I try to start with some small little thing that I think of,” said Saunders. “It’s not an idea, maybe a sentence or two, that’s the dream state, some nugget that is interesting for reasons that you can’t quite figure out. Then I just start poking at it – rewriting it – and like a seed crystal, it grows.”
From those nuggets have grown some wonderfully engaging fiction. No matter the success, Saunders still appreciates the power of the written word.
“There is no art form that puts two people in as intimate a connection as the written word,” he said. “It’s that imaginative thing that says, ‘ok, you are a 15-year old girl.’ As soon as the narrative begins, it’s human nature to start imagining her. That’s really powerful. The fact that I can express a fine, nuanced thought or memory, and here comes a reader that I’ve never met who takes the bait, and suddenly we’re in this thing together. I don’t know of any other art form that can do it.”
Tidbits from Saunders’ Introduction to Creative Writing discussion:
“A writer’s job is to not suck, basically. A writer’s job is to not have the reader close the book and walk off. Then it gets self-exploratory. How are you interesting? That’s a life-long question…what can you do? What voices can you do? Are you a funny person? Are you a good listener? Are you someone who antagonizes? As a writer, those are things you need to think of. What is your default mode? In fact, your stories are going to be pretty close to home. How are you going to write 200 pages in a false voice? That sounds like torture.”
“I think constraint is a really powerful artistic tool. We have this idea that art is self-expression or freedom. I think it’s not. One of the great exercises I stumbled upon is to write a 200-word story – not 199, not 201, 200 exactly – but you can only use 20 words to do it. It’s totally annoying, and at some point you get to a place where you have to start recycling words. I don’t understand it, but anyone doing that will make a beautiful little story. It will have that classic story shape (with) the rising action and all that. It’s almost always funny or at least witty. Almost invariably, when you read them aloud, they are pretty good, even if someone is not a natural writer. If you put that constraint on them, somehow they produce something that’s pretty good.”
“I want to be unsure. The most gentlemanly thing you can do is to be open to everything all the time. Why wouldn’t you? Because you are scared…The enemy of the humanness is shutting down. One of the great things about art is that it teaches you that you have to stay open to the data. That is the lesson of art – you can be perpetually destabilized by your life and that’s a pretty good place to be.”
“The artist’s job becomes how to make the conditions that I can personally thrive. It’s hard. One of the best things a young writer can hear is that there isn’t one way to do it. It’s not like hitting a baseball. There is a body of knowledge (on hitting) that is straightforward. In writing, there isn’t. Your job is to find out enough about yourself to know how you, in particular, will do it in that particular day. It’s always moving around a little bit.”
“One, I think you write for ego. You want to be powerful in the world. If it happens that you are a person who is language driven, that’s fun. Two, as you get older, it becomes a really wonderful way of celebrating the feeling of being alive. If I’m happy, I really love to go make some (stuff) up. It’s just an overflow kind of thing. It’s also a pretty good way of working yourself into a being a better person. Art is a good way of being alive.”
“I’ve had students who have never published, but have lived by writing in the sense that they get up every morning and spend two or three hours in their imagination and I think it’s made them better people, more engaged people. Anything that you do that you love, it makes you better.”
“What you write the first time has nothing to do with the final product. It’s just what comes out. When we are young, we feel like what we write is us. That’s amateurism. What you write is of you, but it’s not you. Cutting is just as much of a talent as (writing). At some point in the process of cutting, you find your maximum energy as a writer. David Foster Wallace said that writer’s block is just someone having outlandishly high standards. The antidote to writer’s block is to have faith in your power to revise. As you work with it it’s going to get smarter because you are the one with the red pen. So then, you never whack an idea. I feel that writer’s block just means that you have a dysfunctional relationship with revision. Most writers make a mess first, then clean it up.”
“Writing isn’t algebra. No one knows how it works or why it works. The difference between a great writer and an ok writer is some weird difference in the way she makes split-second decisions at the keyboard. Some weird neuron firing that you can’t quantify or will into being. When you open a story, you aren’t looking for logic, you are looking for magic. I’ve got a story at home that stinks right now. It’s a mess and I don’t know how to fix it. And I’m not sure I’ll be able to and that’s kind of cool. It’s just a mystery.”