George Saunders is a writer, and a wonderful one. He was born in Amarillo, got a degree in exploration geophysics, teaches at Syracuse, and puts wild, beautiful writing out into the world. If you read anything by him, let it be everything. If you read one thing, let it be this commencement address on kindness. In this interview conducted via email, he discusses the purpose and benefit of art, letting go of plans, and taking the easy route.
How do you describe yourself? How do you describe your work?
Honestly, I try not to describe myself or my work, but let both speak for themselves. I feel that if I get in the habit of describing what I do, then the thing I am in the midst of doing will start trying to comply with my self-description – which might impede its natural energy. So basically, if I ever think, you know, “What is it that I’m doing?” I just answer myself with some sort of platitude, such as “trying to be intense” or “make the reader feel something.”
How important to your writing is time spent not writing?
Very important although, to be honest, less important as I get older. Or I guess I’d say that because of the long practice of writing, more interesting and new intellectual things seem to happen in that space than out of it. The exception might be when I take a journalistic trip – where I am purposely trying to get myself confused and outgunned.
When you’re in the process of writing or creating, what kinds of questions do you ask yourself?
“How do I make this more original?” “Where am I being lazy?” “Why am I not liking this as it is?” “Where, specifically, is this sucking?”
In your work, how often do you have to let go of pre-developed ideas, plans, and outlines?
For me, that is the whole game. Or maybe I’d say it this way: I am trying to be in a constant state of skepticism about any plans or outlines that may be developing. And this is because, as in my answer to your first question, there is the possibility that our loyalty or attachment to a plan might blind us to the actual and more interesting ideas the piece of writing has for itself.
So for me art is about trying something, then reading it to see what it is, then revising to taste, then reading that – etc. etc, ad infinitum. And trying to keep the conceptualizations at bay, as much as possible – paying attention to what the actual, complex experience of reading the piece is.
What are the ways you move through your own resistance to hard work?
I have the opposite problem, which is that I crave hard work and am a bit of a workaholic. If I am feeling resistant to working, I just…start. One way I get around any trepidation regarding the work that lies ahead is to think that my main job is to fart around with a story enough to get interested in it. Once you’re interested, the difference between work and fun vanishes. And it might just take nosing around in a piece a little, light-heartedly, to generate that necessary interest.
I’m a big believer in taking the easy route – not putting undue pressure on myself or, if there is that pressure, tricking myself into mistaking it for “challenge” or “fun.” I think, actually, that is a big part of the artistic life: finding ways to game yourself, i.e., finding ways to use your natural energies and habits and phobias, to benefit your work. There is no wrong or right vis artistic approaches. There is just what works for you. And that might vary from day to day.
If parts of your awareness or attentiveness drift off or go dormant, what wakes them up for you?
Well, I think they are always doing that – that’s just being human. One way to address this, for me, is to do a lot of revision. This assumes that certain parts of you will be inattentive on any given day – but taken over a large number of days, more of you will be engaged, in toto, if you see what I mean.
So, in other words, the artistic process doesn’t mind that it is sometimes inattentive or slothful or whatever – that is just part of the game. And “artistry” is finding a way to cope with that design flaw. As an analogy – there are certain guitars that sound particularly alive at points along the neck and/or on certain strings. If you found yourself playing that guitar, part of your artistry would be to take into account the instrument’s natural tendencies. So in that analogy, we are the guitar, if that makes sense. We have to work with what we have.
Is there anything you embrace now about life and living that you once avoided?
I think I am a little less defensive than I used to be. I hope so, anyway, because I was very defensive as a young guy. So I am a little more comfortable looking at myself when I am failing or being dumb, and accepting that – or at least I know the process by which to do that.
In other words, I find myself trying to accept negative parts of myself with a little more curiosity and less dread or denial, since, odds are, this collective called “me” won’t be around all that long. So I am trying to feel, about myself, more like, “Aw, that poor dope. Look what his mind is doing now,” rather than, you know: “Bad! I am a bad, anxious person!”
If your boldness is failing you, are there ways you have of recovering it?
I think anytime we find ourselves feeling like we are “failing” in some way, it’s helpful to reconceptualize that thought in a gentler way. So if I am “failing in boldness,” it should be possible to ask why, first of all, but maybe also to say something like, “I’m not failing in boldness — I am residing in this sort of slothful place until the solution is clear to me.” Or we could ask the question in a more particular way. “Where, precisely, in this story, does it feel to me that I am failing in boldness?” (or: “that boldness is lacking?”).
Again, I think the game the artist plays is to be able to step outside herself and then gently “work with” whatever is there, to produce an exciting outcome – less judgment, more curiosity, let’s say. Just like you would work with your kid if she had a problem – assuming a solution is possible, and with ultimate fondness for her (i.e., in art, ultimate fondness for yourself). (But, of course, without being wimpy about it. Ha ha). I notice that a lot of us artists tend to work within a sort of contract, like: “I will work until I have proven to myself that I suck. Then I can quit.” And the flipside of that is, “I will work until I have proven to myself that I am good. Then I can be happy.”
But I think the real purpose or benefit of art is that move where you are working closely with your own stuff – trying to find a way to access your own power, come what may. All this to say that I try to encourage my students to reconfigure questions that might make it seem that writing badly means the writer is deficient in some way. “My writing is boring and I suck” might become “my writing is boring on page 8” which might become “I need to take out these four descriptions of this dog and just use the best one” – and we note that this last phrase is devoid of judgment, and is much more practical – you can actually DO something about it.
What’s the best-kept secret of being an adult?
I think our culture, especially in its media products, is a little lazy about portraying the real joys of things like monogamy and commitment and family and so on – there’s this sort of sneering auto-reject of that stuff in a lot of our cultural product. So I guess I’d say that one thing I’ve discovered along the way is that life is really interesting at every step along the way, and that art is a way of underscoring or embracing that. Every human situation is interesting and rich in meaning. If not, it’s on the observer, not on life. (Anyway, feeling that way and living that way would be the goal, I think.)