George Saunders Visits MN

I am freshly returned from seeing George Saunders as the kickoff speaker for the impressive Pen Pal Series. Held in a cushy children's theater in Hopkins, MN, the whole setup is classy as hell, with cupcakes and coffee beforehand. I arrived alone and wild-eyed, per usual for such events.

So I 'm going to type all this out right quick before I forget it. My quotes should be taken as paraphrases since I took no notes.

Saunders talked about how he was under the heavy spell of Hemingway throughout grad school and basically until he was about 33. He tried and tried to write great literary stories and novels and it just wasn't clicking for him (one year he wrote like a madman while working during the day and came up with a terrible 700 page novel-when he gave it to his wife he peaked back around the corner and saw her plunge her face despair-fully into her hands after reading three pages). Then one day he was bored at work and wrote out a bunch of weird funny dirty story/poems, about 15 pages of them, and left them out when he got home. He was standing in another room when he heard "a beautiful sound, my wife laughing". The mental windows flew open for him at that moment and he realized that Hemingway Mountain couldn't be climbed and even if it could, up at the top was Hemingway on a pedestal big enough only for him-nobody else could stand there with him. So Saunders finally noticed a mountain with his name on it and it was really "just a pile of shit" but that it was his shitty hill, it was his turf. He belonged there and, going forward, he kept writing with the hope that one day the mountain wouldn't be shitty anymore and maybe it would rise a little higher.

His process involves getting up in the morning, picking up a clean printed copy of his previous day's work, and trying to read it "like somebody on the bus would read it". He has a mental dial with a needle that fluctuates between Positive and Negative and when the needle hits negative he tries to investigate why. He keeps several different manuscripts, several different story projects, on his desk and hasn't had a clean desk since 1989.

He considers himself a stylist and ruthlessly pares down every extraneous word he can.

He spoke about how writing is really communication (something I've become obsessed with the longer I teach) and that at its best the reading/writing experience is truly the author's mind meeting, however briefly, with the reader's mind. He doesn't claim to know what happens at this moment, or what it's exactly about, but feels it's at the heart of a good story.

He brought up the the Gerald Stern quote: “If you set out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking, then you’ve written a poem about two dogs fucking.” This gets at the idea that if you start out knowing how your story is going to go and stick to that plan, you've merely put a reader through a series of ideas (much like your average power point presentation, I'd say) instead of setting out a mutual journey of discovery with that reader. He also quoted Einstein: "No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception." Basically, an author needs to keep themselves open and ready for the mystery of creating a story.

He also spoke about teaching fiction. His grad program at Syracuse (which I myself was rejected by way back in 2002) gets 600 plus applicants for six slots every year, and they plunge through these applications in two weeks. Someone in the crowd (a student from the U of M) asked Saunders what exactly they look for in these applications and he said they're looking for work that seeks to truly communicate. They turn away a lot of clever stories/applicants, a lot of writers trying to show how smart they are. He also said he used to try to fix everything wrong in every story with his students, then started backing off and focused instead on coxing out the force/voice/what makes a writer unique in each student. Currently, he's decided that mixing the two approaches is best-we need to pull out that voice, yes, but then it needs to be refined. What about you, as a writer, is it that charms the reader? What are your strengths?

He also mentioned that when you find your voice, you may not especially like it, which I thought was an interesting thought.

Some aside notes: the Hopkins Center for the Arts and Hopkins itself reminded me of the cushy town of Eagleton from Parks & Rec. Also, I was feeling a little blue about having no sidekick for the reading but then I noticed Charles Baxter, sitting a few rows up and to my left, also alone, with the seats around him also empty.

Finally, here's an interview with Saunders that I used to help find the quotes he mentioned.

A good night! My heart was filled and my writerly soul renewed. I've been reading Saunders since college and it was fantastic to see him in person after fifteen years of hearing his voice in my head. He talks fast and reminded me a little of Woody Allen mixed with the sidekick guy from Evening Shade.


Linda White said...

I was there too! Thanks for writing this up so quickly - it was bugging me that I didn't have that Einstein quote. Great talk, my first time at Pen Pals, and it was truly enjoyable. And I've never read a word of George Saunders (I won the ticket), but that will now change.

David Oppegaard said...

Thanks Linda! Yes, that Einstein quote is great. Really great. I actually got the ticket for free because I teach at Hamline and The Loft. You're in for a treat-my favorite Saunders collection is still Pastoralia though the new collection has some great stuff in it as well.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave, the Hemingway mountain brings to my mind a similar pattern... That i really enjoy reading your blog and in fact more than sc. I realise that you can't please every reader, but I've been around far too long to not give you an honest feedback...

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