The Price of Our Dreams (Title Borrowed!)

When he talks about writing, George Saunders brings it all down to earth.

He’s so straightforward, so sure, so clear about every phase of the process.

And reassuring, too.

Literary snobbishness?

Zip and ola.

I’ve sung his praises before and reviewed Tenth of December, a terrific collection of imaginative short stories.

I could also post link after link of thoughtful exchanges with Saunders, including from The Big Think podcast and a fabulous two-parter on Bookworm about his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

Anyway, I really didn’t expect to see Saunders pop up on an advice podcast but there he was with Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond. Turns out Saunders was one of Strayed’s writing teachers and mentors at Syracuse University.

The topic was chasing creative dreams while managing, you know, little practical things like work and income. You can read the question and listen to the entire conversation, called 'The Price of Our Dreams' at WBUR.

It’s powerful.

Saunders argues you can do both—and that work and the workplace can provide a wealth of inspiration.

Saunders: “There's a crossroads moment where you say to yourself, ‘okay, either I'm going to do the starving artist route and make these kids suffer or I'm going to suck it up and find in myself the potential to go into a job that I wouldn't have dreamed of taking a year ago.’ And what I found was that actually that was great. To go in and say I have to give up my image of myself as this scrappy, cool young guy and put on a tie and go into this job. So maybe as a way of gaming myself I said ‘Ok, look, if you're a writer you should be able to find material even here, everywhere.’ Since these are human beings gathered together, this must be percolating into my artistic machinery, therefore it's not a waste."

And later in the same podcast, Saunders: “The path that lies between you and the book you dreamed of is actually not a different day to day life except the addition of some writing time. The magic that's going to make you published and beloved is yet to be found. When I was working a day job and writing my first book, I noticed that you can get a lot done in 15 minutes. In some ways, writing at work or writing when you're tired has a way of focusing your mind. I like to gently say to anybody who wants to be an artist, it doesn't always work. Your worth as a human being is not tied to your productivity as an artist, those are wildly divergent things. The pure artistic path is the one that's not too tied to the outcome but is tied to the transformation that happens.”

I like those last two sentences so I’ll highlight it for emphasis:

Your worth as a human being is not tied to your productivity as an artist, those are wildly divergent things. The pure artistic path is the one that's not too tied to the outcome but is tied to the transformation that happens.

Over and out.

Everything Is Broken

I hate it when things aren’t working right.

Last week was a doozy.

First, it was the microphone I use to record podcasts. (Yes, RMFW, the microphone you purchased to help start the podcasts– all $50 worth. It worked for two years & 77 podcasts and then pfffft.)

It looked the same as always. Nothing rattled. But, busted. Gone.

I spent 3.5 hours online with a tech service trying to see what was wrong with my computer.

Turns out, it was the microphone.

Then, our refrigerator started making an annoying rattle.

$850 later, we had a new compressor.  (I can’t show it to you; it’s tucked inside the refrigerator now, doing its job).

These guys came to my house twice in one week!

The next day, one of the flaps in the dryer’s tumbler thing came loose. Whump-whump-whump.

The credit card took another $208 hit.

No joke.

(Bob Dylan was ringing in my ear …. Broken lines, broken strings, Broken threads, broken springs…)

What else breaks?

Sometimes, it’s our words.

A word. A sentence. A paragraph.

George Saunders (Lincoln in The Bardo; many, many killer short stories) has a terrific piece in The Guardian about writing. It's called 'What writers really do when they write.'

He talks about evaluating the words he has written “without hope and without despair.”

George Saunders says he imagines a meter mounted on his forehead as he reads his own stuff, with “P” on one side for positive and “N” on the other for negative.

“Accept the result without whining,” he suggests.

Then edit, he writes, “so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone.”

There’s a lot of good stuff in this piece.

It’s long but entirely worth absorbing.

I won’t come right out and say a sentence is “broken” or a paragraph is “broken."

I mean, you’ve got something work with--that's a huge accomplishment.

Those words on the page. You can’t edit thin air.

But there might be a way to make those words work better.

To make them, well, work.

There’s P, there’s N.

Fix them!

No whining.

Final thought from George Saunders: “Any work of art quickly reveals itself to be a linked system of problems.”

George Saunders on Writing

By Mark Stevens

George SaundersOne of the most highly-decorated writers of the last few years stopped by The Tattered Cover a couple weeks ago.

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.

Stwvens_Saunders_Tenth of DecemberThe 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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014.