By Mark Stevens
The man was George Saunders, who wrote the short-story collection Tenth of December.
Saunders has been showered in praise and critical acclaim. Shower? More like Niagara Falls. The list of awards and prizes is long. Seek elsewhere if you don’t know. It’s impressive.
I wasn’t there, but I listened to the podcast posted on “Authors on Tour.”
I listened three times.
The stories in Tenth of December are stunning pieces. I reviewed it when it first came out. Put it this way: the guy is highly original. The stories have bite.
So what about his presentation? Pompous? Snooty? Professor know-it-all?
Hardly. He referenced Honey Boo-Boo as easily as William Faulkner.
I highly recommend listening to his rapid-fire, enthusiastic style of talking about his writing—and his way-cool reading from a portion of one of his short stories, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” (a hilarious bit of whacky sci-fi).
Here’s a recap of a few of Saunders’ key points about writing.
(A brief comment first: holy smokes, this guy works hard, thinks hard. Tenacious.)
1. Listen to Yourself. “Follow your natural instincts—it’s all you’ve got,” he said. After some early efforts at writing fiction (“Joyce meets Hemingway meets Quaaludes”) and poetry (“scatological Dr. Seuss kinds of things”), one day his “so-called voice sort of appeared” and it was “kind of disappointing.” Nonetheless, it was his natural self. Saunders confessed to a former “medical affliction” called the “Hemingway boner.” “It was like this mountain, Hemingway mountain, I love you, I’m going up you.” After also failing on “Kerouac mountain,” Saunders finally realized there was a “little dung hill” and it had his name on it. The dung hill was his natural voice and he stuck with it.
2. Meaning Doesn’t Matter. “Maybe never,” says Saunders. “What you’re trying to do is get the thing to be energetic and the way you do that is baffling yourself someway.” Saunders added: “My end goal is to put you (the reader) through an invigorating and maybe confusing experience.”
3. Don’t Think in Categories. “You should do whatever you can do.” “Don’t lower the ceiling on yourself.”
4. Reader Intimacy Is Key. “By any means necessary, I'm trying to get the reader to lean in and have an intimate moment with me.” “Engage them first and move on.”
5. Rewrite and Rethink With No Attachment. “I take the story I printed out the day before and inch up to it and say, ‘Let me just read it with no attachment.’ If you are not too hung up on what you thought yesterday, you can see” (what needs work).
6. Dialogue As Plot is DOA. “Bad dialogue is when A asks a question and B answers it, because people don’t do that.” “Dialogue that fulfills plot function is dead on the page.” Dialogue should be two people “firing missiles past each other.” Well-written dialogue is “like poetry—it’s not functional but it looks good on the page and has a zinginess.”
7. Throw Trouble at Your Characters. Quoting Chekhov: “Every happy man should have someone with a little hammer at his door to knock and remind him that there are unhappy people, and that, however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show its claws.”
8. Make it Undeniable. When is a story done? “Everyone will tell you something different...it’s whatever works for you.” For his own needs, Saunders said it’s when every moment in the story “feels undeniable; it feels like what happened.” He worked on one story two months of every year for four or five years. “I have to be solid with it myself. I go to pretty obsessive lengths to make sure I like it.”
9. Writers Don’t Get to Stabilize. In most jobs, he said, we want to have mastery, not only in our jobs but in our life. And we want to coast. In art, you want to find the method but the method is always changing. For writers, “you’re on a cruise ship, your job is to juggle, the ship is sinking, it's coated with ice and we're in roller skates and we're drunk. We don't get to stabilize.”
10. Good Stories Don’t Choose Right or Wrong. Fresh-cut grass is good; falling off a bridge is bad. A writer doesn’t have to deny one or the other. “Part of the fun of a story is you can think one direction, life is miserable, and then put in the other valance and suddenly those two things are resonating and the reader looks to you and says, ‘well, which do you believe?’ And you say, ‘Excuse me, I have to go on to the next paragraph.’ To credit both is really fun.”
11. Milk Your Insecurity. “I feel like if I even let up for one sentence, you'll go away....My stories are kind of manic because I don't want to lose you.”
12. First Draft Doesn’t Matter. At one point in his life, Saunders thought “if your first draft is no good, it’s ‘Shit, I've got to go to law school.” Now it’s “you have an infinite right to go in there and tweak it forever...just keep coming back to it again and again; that's the key to a healthy and long writing life.”
High standards? You bet.
But isn’t it magic when you’re reading and you are so deep down in the story that you forget your reading? That you question nothing? That you lose yourself?
It’s that “undeniable” bar I love. A mighty goal. It’s magic, yeah, but if the master doesn’t mind sharing a few secrets, I’m all ears.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014.