George Saunders On Learning to Write–and Writing to Learn

An indifferent student on the southside of Chicago, his only aspiration was to play in a band. It was a geology teacher that spotted his potential and asked George to express himself in class. Joe Lindbloom, an Oak Forest High School teacher, asked George to write out his comments and then shared those with other adults.

“It’s huge,” recalled George, “when an adult you respected gave you credit for something you had written.”

No one in his family had gone to college. No one ever assumed he would. No one had ever asked him to write down his opinion, and no one had ever shared his opinion with others. The one teacher that did sparked the career of the most critically acclaimed American writer of our time.

George Saunders is a professor of English at Syracuse University and author of many critically acclaimed short stories. His collections include “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” (2016), “Tenth of December” (2014), “In Persuasion Nation” (2007), and “Pastoralia” (2001). In 2006, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship.

His first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), won the Man Booker prize in October. It’s a moving and spiritual story of Lincoln’s grief after the death of his 11-year-old son Willie. Abe visits the crypt, pulls Willie from the coffin and holds him, unaware that Willie’s ghost is standing right there next to him. The story is narrated by ghosts—noblemen and paupers, slaves and slavemasters. The bardo is from the Tibetan notion of a sort of transitional purgatory between rebirths. Saunders also weaves in historical voices–over 160 in total–in rapid-fire exchanges.

For the audiobook, Saunders wanted a different voice for each character. He enlisted his high school teachers Joe and Sherry Lindbloom, his high school buddies, his wife and daughters, well as actors Don Cheadle, Julianne Moore, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally, and humorist David Sedaris.

Saunders describes his first novel in this YouTube video:

On backstory. I met George in the weight room at the Colorado School of Mines in 1977. Both accidental engineers, George was there because a geologist believed in him, I was there because a coach believed in me.

Saunders had long hair and a quick wit. When he got nervous, he got funny–and we were nervous a lot as freshmen. (In the 70s, Mines was a mental bootcamp with frequent torture tests; it was not cultivation of the mind but culling of the weak.) His improvisation and guitar made him popular on campus.

Our freshmen humanities class was a BBC television series in a big dark theater. We both found watching The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski odd pedagogically, but occasionally thought-provoking.

We both bombed our first P-Chem test (I got 23%), and realized we couldn’t fake our way through Mines.

On lessons from engineering. We didn’t write much at Mines, but we did learn about rigor, and we developed the capacity to work hard. George remembers “no partial credit” from our summer surveying class. Today, that phrase reminds him that there is not necessarily a link between work and reward. “If draft 48 lacks magic, it’s not there, you’ve got to rewrite it,” he says.

“I use my engineering training in my writing all the time,” Saunders told the Chicago Magazine. “In terms of logical rigor and an experimental approach to a story, you come into it thinking you know what it’s going to do but being open to the possibility that it might do something else. [That] is totally an applied-science approach.”

On writing to know. A lesson Saunders took from high school is that it’s one thing to say something, it’s another to write it down. “I write to know what I think.”

In his 2005 novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, Saunders wrote about a president who comes to power by exploiting fear. Sometimes writing taps into things as they really are.

“The part of our minds we don’t use on an everyday basis, that part comes forward in writing,” says Saunders. “This subconscious mind often reasons faster than the conscious mind, allowing it come to the table.”

Saunders told Texas Monthly that “the skills that a writer…learns are not extraneous or fluffy or ornamental. They’re the fundamentals of democracy, which are 1) we can find the truth by investigating with an open heart; 2) the truth will not only set you free but will join you with other truth-seekers; 3) somehow truth-telling and love are related; and 4) democracy is essentially love. Democracy says everyone should be equally treasured. So all those things, what little I know about those things, I arrived at them in large part through writing, through trying to struggle through a text to make it full of life.”

On reading to write. When a high school teacher gave Saunders a copy of Atlas Shrugged and it took hold of him, he knew he wanted to be in that world. He recalls reading the Ayn Rand classic in the back of a car returning from a ski trip. “This image of myself on a college campus sprang up, wearing a sweater, talking about intellectual stuff–it was an imaginative vision, it made me want to go to college.

Saunders remembers reading A.J. Ayer in a Theory of Knowledge of class at Mines and puzzling about how we know what we know. The one literature class he took at Mines, an exploration of the American West, caused him to consider humanities. He found himself sneaking to the library to read Faulkner and Hemingway.

After four and a half years at Mines, Saunders (and I) had assembled enough credits to graduate (over 140, what most schools require for a Master’s degree), and he worked in the Sumatran jungle as a geophysicist for a few years.

His work in the Asian oil patch–four weeks on, two weeks off–took him far from everything he knew. He read everything he could get his hands on–and he came home to be a writer.

Back in the states, he played in a band and worked in a slaughterhouse in Amarillo, and bummed off his aunt in Chicago. He enrolled in the writing program at Syracuse and “felt unread” compared to his literate colleagues.

Twenty-five years later, Saunders might be the most critically acclaimed American author. He has inspired thousands of young writers with his writing and teaching.

On writing. “Normally, I get up and write,” says Saunders. The approach is iterative: “I print out a clean copy from the night before and mark it up on paper.”

Maybe it was the red pen training during his Master’s at Syracuse or, as Saunders suggests, some neurological basis for seeing things in print, but he is certain that it’s better to edit on paper. Then it’s “Rinse, lather, repeat.”

For a short story, he’ll review as much as he’s written every day. For the story he’s working on now, that’s about nine pages–and he’s still not sure where it will go. He pressure tests the logical branch point “like the proofs we did at Mines. If the logic is weak, you have to break open the story.”

The logic of a story is “like walking across a creek on a log. If you’re sloppy, you fall in.”

A short story will undergo hundreds of edits–Saunders says it’s done when it’s done. “I know it when I see it.” Then, his wife Paula Redick, a fellow writer, gets first look.

On surrendering to the story. I try to go in and say to the book very humbly, you tell me, you tell me what you want me to do, and that works out better for me, because my preplanning brain is very very pedestrian and it makes boring shit. But if I surrender to the book and trust that the process will tell me how to become complex I’m a happier camper.”

Saunders describes his writing process as a “rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system.” When it works, as it did in the Bardo, “There is something wonderful in watching a figure emerge from the stone unsummoned, feeling the presence of something within you, the writer, and also beyond you – something consistent, wilful, and benevolent, that seems to have a plan, which seems to be: to lead you to your own higher ground.”

On character management. In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders wove together a panorama of historical and invented voices. Rather than spreadsheets or notebooks (or graph paper like we used at Mines), George keeps it all in his head. “It’s mostly stagecraft,” he says.

Beyond the main characters, the rest are “about adding texture to Terracotta warriors,” explains Saunders. “A book like this is going into a room–give this guy a beret, this a mustache.”

Bardo was rattling around in his head for 20 years and took four years to write. It built upon a book he wrote in the 90s based in a graveyard. The Bardo dialog was inspired by early text messaging software and a lot of George Carlin.

On poetry. Bardo reads more like poetry than prose. Saunders says he doesn’t read much poetry, but he is a fan of the poetic prose of James Joyce and Jack Kerouac.

“If there’s a human being standing there, that’s interesting,” says Saunders. “If the person isn’t fully expressing themselves, that’s what poetry is: language constricted through too small a voice.”

On convention. Unlike the practice of engineering, Saunders’ writing is unencumbered by convention–it’s idiosyncratically fantastical and in a style that often looks more like texting than literature. Is this rebellion, intention, or George just trying to get out of the way of the story?

“You have to know the rules before you break them,” he says. His training included reading many of the classics– Chekov to O’Connor.

“You have to subjugate yourself to how it’s been done, then in this terrifying moment you depart from tradition for good reason–when what is in you can only get out if you break the rules.”

In football, “You can’t be wide receiver in your own way,” says Saunders. “You’ve got to follow the rules, then maybe, when you’re really good, you can add a bit of your own expression.”

George says he brings what he has to offer: a working-class background, humor, engineering training, experience working in Asian oil fields. It all finds its way into his stories.

On writing to love. When Syracuse asked Saunders to deliver a commencement address, he procrastinated. With the speech rapidly approaching, he resorted to a talk on kindness he had given to his daughter’s middle school class. He couldn’t find the notes, and quickly recreated it from memory.

George recounted all the things in his life that could be a source of regret, and he realized that they had all shaped him–and his writing. He also realized his only regrets were the times he had failed to reach out.

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness,” says Saunders. It was, he added, “Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”

How does Saunders think we can promote kindness? “Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art is good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition — recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.”

His speech struck a chord–it was reprinted by the New York Times, and formed the basis for his book “Congratulations, By the Way.”

On teaching writing. Writing teachers should help students become good readers. According to Saunders, “their main job is to read, have a reaction, notice it, and articulate it.”

This four-step process of criticism, says Saunders, has to involve details and examples. “There’s not a right and wrong way to think about it. It, ultimately, validates taste.”

“Assertion isn’t good enough, you have to learn what you think.”

A vivid way to test writing is to ask one student to write a description while another student draws out what they hear. “It shows that writing is communication,” he says.

On editing. Learning to write is a tuning process, says Saunders. It’s about developing a sense of what’s good–a meter in your head ranging from Positive to Negative.

He asks himself, and his students, “Watching the meter, where would the needle be? Be honest with yourself, and accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “Positive” zone.”

Through iteration, with an eye on the meter, Saunders says a text “becomes more specific and embodied in the particular. It becomes more sane. It becomes less hyperbolic, sentimental, and misleading.”

“The interesting thing,” Saunders told the Guardian, “is that the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in “real life” – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining.”

“Writing is to not condescend the imaginary reader,” says Saunders. “Imagine if someone wrote a letter to you. If it’s full of stupid repetition it would be vaguely insulting to your intelligence, when the goal should be to captivate the reader.”

As a young teacher, Saunders says, “thought it was my job to convert students. Now, I’m trying to be more Zen about.”

Fighting his tendency for hyperbolic feedback, Saunders does a lot of line editing, “not passing conceptual judgment, but showing waste.”

Saunders searches for the one sentence that will change a student’s mind. “Kids come [into the Creative Writing program] and imitate other writers. Good teachers will say one thing that will break the cycle.”

“Line editing really helps,” he says. “Cutting.”

On teachers of English. “Why do we love our writing teachers so much?” Saunders once asked. “Why, years later, do we think of them with such gratitude? I think it’s because they come along when we need them most, when we are young and vulnerable and are tentatively approaching this craft that our culture doesn’t have much respect for, but which we are beginning to love. They have so much power. They could mock us, disregard us, use us to prop themselves up. But our teachers, if they are good, instead do something almost holy, which we never forget: they take us seriously. They accept us as new members of the guild. They tolerate the under-wonderful stories we write, the dopy things we say, our shaky-legged aesthetic theories, our posturing, because they have been there themselves.”

Good teachers make us think, “I might be a writer.”

The problem is that the craft of teaching is rather mysterious. George told Hera Lindsay Bird that it’s hard “to express why this writer is interesting and this one isn’t. So it’s like a form of ritual humility, talking about it.”

Saunders tells college students to take advantage of office hours and to take control of their education–to be their own tour guide.

On using his work to teach writing. Saunders urges a bit of caution for using his stories to teach high school writing. “Many voices are vernacular, working class.” (In other words, some school boards would find some of his work a little racy for high school students.)

When they do get access to his work, young writers often say “I didn’t know you could do that.”

“I tell my students there is a relation between good writing and who they are as people,” he says. “Whoever they are, they have something to say. What you feel can become literate.” For example, when stressed, Saunders results to humor. His books become funny and wry.

But again, he notes that before going off the ranch, learning grammar and syntax is important. “You have to be subjugated to conventions before you can break them.”

On teaching kindness. “For teachers, qualities like kindness, empathy, and self-effacement are important,” Saunders says. “These are essential human values. They are the center of all great art. They are the center of all great science–the drive to improve life for others.”

After his commencement speech, there was a bit of that “Oh yeah, he’s the kindness guy.” The critique often came from people that mistake kindness for niceness. “In Buddhist tradition,” says Saunders, “kindness is whatever will clear your shit up.” He added, “Kindness isn’t easy. It’s about being corrected.”

He draws an engineering example, ”If we were going to build bridges, it would not be kind to get all the answers wrong.”

If you go into a coffee shop and the barista is crying, what’s the right thing to do? “It may be the kinder thing to shut up. Kindness requires awareness.”

On success. On the gushing reviews for Lincoln in the Bardo, George says they were “especially sweet”–particularly for his first novel.

George has been on the road for a year since the release of Bardo, making hundreds of appearances, including those with Stephen Colbert and Charlie Rose. And, despite being one of the most critically acclaimed American authors, he’s still not widely recognized. “The nice thing about writing is that it doesn’t follow you-you still get to go out.”

Saunders said it’s nice to know this book connected with people, but that now it’s on to the next book. He found the emergence of Bardo “a beautiful, mysterious experience,” but flinches at the work of setting the machine in motion again.

He won a MacArthur genius award more than a decade ago, but Saunders seems to be growing into his full genius in his sixth decade. Buddhism says that success is fleeting, but Saunders’ contributions appear to be on the rise.

He was friendly, thoughtful, and funny in the 70s. He’s kind, reflective, and even more Zen these days–but with an American sense of impact urgency.

“Your life,” Saunders told the Syracuse graduates, “is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving. Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now.”

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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