Short story writer George Saunders visited campus as part of Northwestern University’s Contemporary Thought Speaker Series on Monday. We sat down with Saunders to talk about his writing process, background and the future of university education.
Your stories are funny and weird as hell. Yet as a young man, you said you were obsessed with being Ernest Hemingway — with being this serious, vigorous, masculine writer. When did you decide it was okay to pepper your literature with sci-fi and poop jokes?
I wrote this one story when I was about 26 that got me into grad school, and it was a little bit crazier and a lot more fun — more the way I write now. And it was just because I had this weird dream about a theme park. That was the first time i kind of latched on to the idea that my natural sense of humor was the one to use. But then I got to grad school and I kind of chickened out and went back to writing Hemingway kinds of pieces. And then it was like, I was 30 with kids, and I looked around and I wasn’t writing anything I liked. It was kind of like, if you were getting beat up behind a building and you were like, “I hate these guys!” And you notice you have one hand behind your back. So the thing for me was to realize, “How do I actually relate to people?” Which is to be frank, to say the honest thing, to be funny, but I had to find a way to make that work. It was like lifting up a curtain. So that was about 32, and right after that I wrote my first book.
Speaking of seven years, most of your stories take several months to write, at least. What happens during that time?
I’m just going through them again and again and again, editing the sentences for sound to make them tighter, more distinctive. And then in the process, I would call it discovering plot. I start out and I don’t know what’s gonna happen, I’m just farting around in a section. And then in the middle of the section, someone will say or do something that’ll make me go...Hmmm, that’s interesting. That brings me to the next beat. So it’s not like i begin and know where the story’s going, it’s more like I’m just kind of playing. Somewhere in there the storyteller’s work happens.
But that’s just, for me, really time intensive. i think some people sit down and say, “I want to write a story about x,” and they sit down and do it. But for me, it’s literally just reading and rereading every day, taking edits and putting them in. At some point you get to a place where it’s so fuzzy you don’t know what’s going on, and then you can start writing some new material. Stuff like that. It’s kinda weird, and not everyone does it that way for sure. But that’s the way I do it.
You’ve had this unorthodox background as a geophysics major at the Colorado School of Mines and have gone to Sumatra. Also, you’re a tenured professor for Syracuse’s Creative Writing Program. If you were writing a modern version of Rilke’s letters to a young poet, what would your advice be?
My advice is don’t worry about it. Get in there and do the fucking work. Get in there and spend your hours. Because you’re smart, and hungry, and you obviously have passion for it. You have taste, so the only thing that’s stopping you is some kind of tentativeness about beginning. But if you go in there and work three hours a day, you know, you’ll figure out what your issues are, what your strengths are, and you’ll figure out strategies for coping with your weaknesses.
But from my experience, none of that can be done from an outside. You can’t sit back here and go, "I’ll be this kind of writer." You gotta get your hands dirty. The second thing is that it’s like a relationship. Someone could ask you, “Oh, tell me about your future husband,” and you could say “sketch it out, but you might be totally wrong, and until you get into it, you don’t really know. So i think the biggest advice is don’t worry about it, there's nothing you can give to a young writer that will guarantee you anything, they’ve already got what they need, they have the passion for it, so the only thing that happens they get sort of hung up on, I guess, is fear, that you don’t start. Or you start and you quit. What you’re doing when you’re writing, mostly, is revising. When you’re revising, what are you doing? You’re mostly having an opinion.
Now, if I gave you a sheet of prose, you’d have all kinds of opinions about it. And if I told you, “How can you make this better?” You could probably do it. That’s all it is, really. So there’s this nice story...Robert Frost came to college to speak, and someone gave him this complicated question about a sonnet. And supposedly he said, “Young man, don’t worry, work!”.
Although I recently heard he said the other thing, “don’t work, worry!” So now I can’t make any sense of that anecdote.
But it’s scary. To be a writer, you have to go into your own shit. And you have to find out what that is. You, not me. I mean, I can mentor you, I can help you, but at the end of the day, you have to go in and have that terrible burst of courage that lets you type 1500 words. And then you have to have another burst that says, "All right, I’m going to read this. and I’m not going to be faint of heart, I’m gonna read it.” And as you’re reading it, you’ll go, “Oh wait. I spelled ‘cat’ wrong. That’s an easy fix.” Then you’re gonna say, "this sentence is kinda sloppy. I don’t like it." Because you’re a person of language. "I don’t like it. So fix it." And there ya go. You’re rewriting. If you have patience, that process will start to produce a whole story.
Do you write from your childhood?
No, not intentionally. Everybody does in some way, but i’ve never been somebody to do that intentionally. I’m just trying to do something magical, and I don’t care what that is. I don’t care if that’s a reference to my life, I don’t care if it’s like, philosophical, I just want to be really alive on the page. And for me, that means mostly not writing from real life. I just have more fun making up people. I’m sure that whatever shit I went through as a kid is there, but to me it’s not — people think writing is just taking what you think and putting it on the page, but I think it’s something different. If somebody’s a great musician, what does that have to do with their childhood? You hear the Avett Brothers and they’re really doing something energetic, and who knows where that comes from. For me that was liberating to say, "I don’t have to think about where my writing comes from". It’s more like "I’m gonna make a little play, a little puppet show."
In relation to CTSS, what do you think the future of a university education will look like?
I don’t know. When we were young, the idea of education was you’re trying to become a more well-rounded person, a more righteous citizen. Over the last 40 years, I’ve notice that it’s maybe slipped a little bit, to be more vocational. Maybe not here, but at other places it’s more focused on getting a job.
And that’s short-term thinking. So I think to get back to a place where you’re thinking, okay, you have a pause between high school and college, What kind of person do you want to be? Like what’s the real goal of your life? I would say look into all the traditions, spiritual and otherwise, and really just reboot because we have this incredibly powerful country that sometimes uses power for good and sometimes ill. And you guys are the ones in the age of information who will decide. So i think go back to the old model, which is make a better person. Now how are you gonna do that? And that’s where I think you have to decide. That’s the first thing. Jobs come and go. As somebody who’s very specifically educated for a job in the oil fields, you know, and we got out there, there was a crash and there were no jobs. And you had all these people like me, who were very narrowly educated in a specific discipline.
But I don’t know what the future is.