Last month, the DePaul Humanities Center invited George Saunders to read from his newest story collection, The Tenth of December, which is, according to The New York Times, already the best book of 2013. But despite all the clamor, Saunders is a pretty laid-back guy, and he spent a long time discussing his work and process of writing.
Readers of Saunders often remark how his stories are unlike anything else that’s out there–how does he do it? “It’s about line-by-line energy,” he explained. Saunders sees the storywriting process like a date. “As you’re writing, you’ve got your eye on this imaginary reader–somebody who you’re trying to get to lean into you a little bit.” The best stories are those that signal a desire to engage the reader, meaning you get their attention in a way that isn’t condescending or pedantic, but rather captivating. For Saunders, this is what’s timeless about good literature: “Whether it’s coming in a tweet, or being beamed directly into your head, or delivered by suppository or whatever, when we get into a sincere relationship with another human being, it tells us we’re alive. I think that’s eternal.”
Still, for all its originality, his work must have its influences. In his essay “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra,” Saunders discusses his awakening to literature via Slaughterhouse-Five, but at DePaul Saunders explained his influences also include his father and his uncles, who were superb storytellers, and his friends in Chicago, but especially the humor of the 1970s, à la Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Saturday Night Live‘s early mainstays, like Steve Martin. His work hit its stride, he says, with the discovery that “the voices I was close to, that had been in my head, those could be put to literary use. Before that I had this insecure idea that anything that came naturally had to be wrong, had to be low. Well, when I’m trying to persuade somebody or get myself out of a jam, or break social tension, I always joke around. I’ve always done it since I was a little kid. So why not? Why couldn’t that be literary?”
In the same way, Saunders, who was once a technical writer for a corporation in upstate New York, often parodies corporate jargon and double-speak in his work. “What interests me,” he explained, “is that I can rely on it. I’m not exactly the most articulate guy, and I worked for corporations for a while, and that kind of sunk in, and part of that earlier realization was that that too is a form of poetry. If you get a corporate guy really hyped up, give him 15 diet Cokes or something, and put him up on a stage, now he’s going to say some shit. And he’s going to mean it. And if that guy, for example, is trying to propose to his girlfriend, it’s going to be beautiful human speech. Any diction that gets overflowed and is shot through with genuine feeling, that’s poetry. Whatever voice is handy to you, maybe you could elevate it up into a fictive voice.”
His final breakthrough, he explained, was when he learned to embrace revision. “I heard Ira Glass say something once, that we all get into art because we have good taste, that’s how we’re so strongly moved by the good stuff. Well, then the problem is that you spin around and apply it to your own work, and that’s how you get writer’s block. I went to a songwriting seminar once. There’s a beautiful song called “The Dutchman,” and Mike Smith is the guy who recorded this song. He did this songwriting seminar, and said, ‘When your work seems terrible, you should be grateful, because it proves you still have taste.'”
How encouraging is that? Basically, if you’re unhappy with your work, it’s not that you’re a terrible writer: it’s that you have extraordinary taste. Saunders went on: “If you get through a paragraph and go ‘ugh, God,’ that’s a really happy day. Because then you can look at it, and ask, ‘Okay, what is it about you that’s bothering me?’ And then from there you know there’s a way out. So as long as you keep getting sickened by your own work, there’s still hope for you. I actually believe that.
“Another earlier breakthrough I had was this: if you understand revision and you’ve done it, and you’ve lived in that beautiful land for a while, then ‘unsatisfactory’ isn’t a scary thing. That’s a diagnosis. But if you believe like I did when I was young that the first draft was the litmus test, then it’s terrible.
“You are not your first draft. You’re not even your fiftieth draft. You’re free to keep participating and improving. If you identify so closely with the first draft, that when it’s no good you jump off a bridge, then you’re an amateur. Well, a dead amateur.”