This is the second part of a two-part interview. Read part one here.
Patrick Dacey I’ve been thinking lately about the impulse new writers have to imitate their heroes—they know they want to write, and they know what resonates with them as readers, so they fall into a kind of trap where they write toward a preconceived ideal, taking whatever ideas they have and fitting them into someone else’s structure and style. My wife, Tara, taught a fiction class recently where two of her more promising students were Miranda July hopefuls who wrote stories full of nonsequiturs and quirky sweaters and neurotic inner monologues about mismatched shoelaces and Spam. What are your thoughts about the tendency among new writers to lean toward “what works” rather than pursuing a vision of their own? Is this maybe a necessary step for any artist, like the way a child learns to do things through observation and imitation before he becomes his own strange, self-motivated person? It also seems likely that by now there are more than a few George Saunders hopefuls out there who are trying to work versions of your characters or aspects of your style into their own stories. How does it affect you as a writer and reader when you come across this sort of thing, both among students and in published work?
George Saunders I definitely think this imitation phase is a good and necessary thing—or at least an unavoidable thing. I went through it in a big way, several times. I think what happens is that, as you get older, and start having more undeniably valid and costly life experiences, you start acutely feeling the distance between the prose you are imitating and your own life. It’s painful, actually, that disjunct. It grates. And of course you never think you’re imitating someone—you think you’re “taking over the torch” or “doing the next thing for the lineage” or whatever. I went through this with Thomas Wolfe, then Hemingway, then Kerouac, then Carver, Toby Wolff, Isaac Babel. And after all that, once we had our kids, I started to feel a little sick at heart every time I donned the cloak o’ admiration, i.e., every time I felt that little thought-bubble called “Who Shall I Imitate Today?” start to form around my head.
I’ve started to think that this is one of the hardest and most important things a young writer can do: look at his/her heart-influences and ask, very respectfully: OK, given that this great master existed in the world, what else is there left for me to do? That is, you love (for example) Tolstoy, you give Tolstoy his due. But then you have to say: All right, given that Tolstoy has already existed, is there anything in his world-view that I might, slightly, disagree with? Is there anything that I have known and seen and felt in my life that, perhaps (sorry, maestro!) is not fully accounted for in his work? If not—well, there are other things to do in this life. If so, go for it.
For example, I remember reading Hemingway and loving his work so much—but then at some point, realizing that my then-current life (or parts of it) would not be representable via his prose style. Living in Amarillo, Texas, working as a groundsman at an apartment complex, with strippers for pals around the complex, goofball drunks recently laid off from the nuclear plant accosting me at night when I played in our comical country band, a certain quality of West Texas lunatic-speak I was hearing, full of way off-base dreams and aspirations—I just couldn’t hear that American in Hem-speak. And that kind of moment is gold for a young writer: the door starts to open, just a crack.
PD There seems to be a good deal of negative press about MFA programs. That these programs are inorganic and that students are taught how to write a certain way. I’m really not sure what the argument is against having two to three years to focus on nothing but writing, being exposed to great writers and getting financed to travel, etc. The argument seems to be that writers ‘in the old days’ would go out in the world, like, live in Paris or New York and drink and talk. Most of the criticism seems to be bullshit, but I’ll admit I did feel a certain level of stress and self-consciousness I don’t think was there before. And I was glad to get out for a while, try my hand at reporting, work on a novel in Mexico, mow some lawns on Cape Cod for a summer, before getting back into teaching. I remember you saying once that your writing became worse while you were getting your MFA at Syracuse.
GS Well, worse and better. Short-term, my stories got worse. I was so intimidated and impressed by my teachers and peers that I sort of clammed up and got (shudder) “serious.” That is, having been admitted on the basis of a kind of wildish story, I reverted to a kind of realism at which I’m not very good. So if you looked at the work I did while I was in the program, it was pretty flat. But I think all that time I was learning some deeper things about structure so that, when I finally got my voice back, I knew what to do with it. Before that, I could be sort of funny/wild but only for a page at a time.
My feeling is that it would be pretty hard to generalize about a phenomenon as vast and various as creative writing programs—it’s kind of like generalizing about grocery stores. But I agree with you that, at their best, they aren’t much different from the small writing communities of yore. (I like the idea of Hemingway in workshop with Fitzgerald and Stein and Joyce, and afterwards, having been trashed—(“Maybe Nick Adams could have a little more inner monologue in here, Hem?” says Gertrude Stein)—Hemingway beats them all up.) The only thing I’m finding a little problematic lately is a shift in attitude I’ve seen over the last 4-5 years, in which an MFA is seen as essential to becoming a writer. Essential and sufficient: no way to be a writer if you don’t have one, and pretty much a guarantee that you will be a writer if you do get one. Neither of these things is true, seems to me, and the sort of frenzy/desperation I see in young writers is troubling. It feels like there’s been this subtle shift, wherein the insane act of writing fiction—which is pure vocation and lunacy—is becoming “a career.” I mean, it can turn into a career, one hopes—but first it has to be a vocation, with all that implies: failure, isolation, dark nights of the soul, a tank-like resolve to do it no matter what the world says, private moments of realization, etc.
PD Not only to becoming a writer, but a teacher as well. Yet many universities want to know what you’ve published and if you don’t have those credits it can cause one to rush out work that isn’t ready (I’m basing this on experience), which is a killer. So, it’s difficult to talk about those last things you mentioned because they always exist, will always exist. I was going to pretend as if I had some sort of epiphany in the last few years about my own writing, but that wouldn’t be true. It seems to be more of a spiritual matter, an attempt to connect myself with the other through some third thing that exists between the two, and if I’m aware of that existence, then I’m not concerned with what the end result provides me with.
GS Back when I was just out of grad school, I think things were simpler. I remember feeling that there were two kinds of teaching a person could do: the teaching you did before you had a book (i.e., 87 sections of freshman comp) or the kind of teaching you did after a book (grad teaching, light load, tenure-track. I’m not sure that was the case then, but that was my understanding of it.) Given my various intellectual frailties and the fact that I’d never, at that point, taught, I had a feeling that the first option would be disastrous for me—a hunch that all of the grading and thinking about writing were not stage-appropriate for me and would fuck up my fiction. And I think I was right about that—I had a lot of learning to do after grad school, a lot of trying to get in touch with some wild part of my writing self that I’d lost, a lot of work figuring out how to use the things I’d learned in grad school. And that took a lot of quiet. That is, Joyce’s “silence, exile, and cunning.” A sense that, at least in that realm, I could do whatever I wanted and it would only cost me—not our family. So—again, given my psyche—this meant finding something that would support us adequately, and that would also allow some flexibility to write (i.e., some way to steal time from work.)
So I was lucky enough to have had an engineering background, and although by that point the degree was a little cold (like, seven-years cold) I found work as a technical writer. At that point my feeling was basically this all-the-eggs-in-one-basket feeling: I am going to keep working as a tech writer and doing fiction on the side until I finish a book, a book I really like, and at that time, if I feel like it and it seems advantageous (to my family life, to my writing life) I’ll look for a teaching job. But only if I want to and only if it’s a really good one. But I didn’t feel all that urgent about getting into teaching. So my thought was to sort of hold my breath and eschew teaching until I could do it on terms that felt right for me. Which, given the feast-or-famine nature of teaching at that time, as described above, made sense.
Now it seems like the game has slightly changed. From what I can see, there are a lot of decent jobs teaching creative writing, at relatively sane loads, even for people with no book yet. Which is great, but also complicates things in the way you’ve described in your question. Because eventually the university is going to start looking for that book, and during the time the person was supposed to be writing it, he/she was teaching a load that, even if it was a pretty light one, would typically be more intense than that of the “post-book” hire.
But writing is funny. It’s kind of like “farming by Escher.” You can put down perfect seeds, in just the right way, in great weather, and get nothing (i.e., you can have all the time in the world, do a gazillion drafts, and …blah.) Or you can be messing around one day and a seed falls out of your pocket and something really interesting and new grows.
The only thing I’ve really come to believe is that it’s all about putting in the hours. The poet Jon Fink related this story to me awhile back and it’s stuck with me. Robert Frost was apparently doing a college visit back in the 1950s and a student asked him some complicated, technical, conceptual question, of the “how must the poet proceed?” variety, and Frost answered: “Don’t worry, work.”
Now, at first this struck me as a little bit easy. (Hey thanks, Mr. Most Famous Poet in the World, I’d never considered not worrying before! That’s super!) But it’s starting to make sense to me. I’m a person who has always done a lot of thinking and worrying and planning and strategizing vis-à-vis my writing, but as I look back at the last 20 years, I can see that all the real big leaps, such as they were, took place in a sort of extra-conceptual place—they came at-speed, while writing, or over many days of writing—but in any case, through work, through the hours and hours of work, when the subconscious is being given free rein and hence can do the crazy things only it can do. That is, I never “decided” anything about writing that did me much good, that I can remember.
PD Yes, there are those stories that just come to you in a shot, and then those ones that take two years or more to get right, and then, you look at them and maybe you never get them right. So, how then has teaching influenced your work and your life, beyond, you know, money?
GS What I really like about teaching is that it reminds me that writing (and the effect it has on people) is real. We writers comprise a sort of embattled guild in the world, and it’s a non-trivial guild. The things we are saying (the things that only we can say, i.e., the things that can’t be said/reached in films, songs, blogs, tweets, etc. etc.) are essential. But also: that a given person can be better or worse at saying those things, depending on how hard and how efficiently she works. Or, another way to say it: expressiveness, in humans, is mutable. We can get better at it. And when we get better at expressiveness, we get better at understanding, better at sympathy, better at bullshit-detection, better at experiencing pleasure, better at true engagement (with others, with the world, with ourselves). And in a time when (I hate this phrase but) “mass-media” seems intent on making us worse at understanding and sympathy, and is rapidly filling us with (cheerful, happy) (or faux-dark, doom-inflected) bullshit, and seems specially designed to make us less adept at experiencing (real, authentic) pleasure, and is bent on actively discouraging real engagement—well, at that time, our guild becomes essential.
PD Well, it’s only a matter of time before a novel produced solely in tweets is published (How inauthentic, unoriginal, and overly ironic! says the critic via Twitter). It seems strange to me that reading short stories isn’t more popular nowadays, given our attention spans. I’ve often felt that, despite its popularity, the short story makes more sense, and that may be why the general public invests themselves in long thrillers, because the short story is too close to their natural way of relating information to others. We tell 20 or more short stories a day, to people we know and people we don’t know, constantly revising those stories depending on who we’re telling them to. And the best novels, to me, are the ones that don’t rely on just one story, but are filled with multiple stories within whatever the driving force of that novel is.
GS Right. Although, as someone who’s been around since the late Pleistocene, when we used to write our short stories while riding around in horse-drawn carriages and all had untreateable syphilis, I can tell you that this idea that the short story is somehow underloved has been around awhile itself. My sense is that the story is holding steady, same as it ever was: tended by a relatively small but passionate group of devotees around it, who keep it vital.
Now, having said that—and to your point—I talked to a really wonderful writer recently who writes both novels and stories, and I asked him what the difference was in terms of attention at time of publication. He said he will get about 4-5 times as much attention for the novel. Wah.
One thing about the short story is that it’s kind of an exotic, hothouse version of the “real” story. It does a little more—there’s more compression, of course, but also a higher expectation of shapeliness and some kind of aesthetic closure—a moment where the wires the writer has filled with current get a chance to really cross. So I think some “normal” readers don’t know quite what to do when they get to the end of a literary short story that feels (to them) oddly shaped, or truncated—i.e., that doesn’t follow the natural course of events out to the last days of the protagonist or whatever.
But there’s another answer, which I’m pretty sure I don’t believe, but which I’ll simulate here anyway: contemporary short story writers have gotten too specialized/dark/mopey. They don’t have enough “real life” in their stories—that is, they’re not taking up the real concerns of real readers. They aren’t storytellers, really (in that around-the-campfire sense) but margin-dwellers, writing stories in response (not to life itself), but to other hothouse stories, and all these stories do, really, is uphold a certain knee-jerk, lazy, default humanist ethic, etc., etc. Where’s the joy? Isn’t there lots to celebrate in life? This model (as you can tell) is dangerously close to reactionary (“Just write something I can read and I’ll read it! Why so negative! You sure seem well-fed enough, mister!”), and I don’t buy it for a number of reasons, the main one of which is that sometimes joy can express itself in strange ways, and also because stories have always been dark (i.e., Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the Crucifixion).
But lately I have found myself wondering—aware of a certain tic in my own approach, a tic that seems to autoswerve towards a suite of things drama, violence, darkness, speed. Is this an authentic and natural tendency of mine, and therefore to be honored? Or is it a sort of acquired and automatic thing, to be regarded with suspicion, and thrown off in favor of something else?
But I guess this tension is good, good to write from. God forbid we should wake up one day and know exactly what we’re doing.
PD In talking more about not talking about writing, do you have some inclination of why you’ve begun to move towards more drama, violence, darkness, and speed as of late? And is this ‘tic’ what helps you to view your stories as a collection that work together in one book or does that not matter so much when putting together a collection? Meaning, did you have a certain tic that led you through the stories in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, and In Persuasion Nation that you see influencing the work that you’ll include in your next book?
GS I think this tic or habit has been with me from the beginning. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. I’ve always loved this Chekhov story called “After the Theatre.” It’s this simple little 5-6 page thing. A girl comes home from a play, thinks about it, about certain boys she knows (it seems she’s very pretty) and we hear her internal monologue as she’s sort of rating one boy against the other, thinking about her future, etc., etc. At least that’s how I remember it. But it’s perfect: he really nails the adolescent sensibility. You can see the girl she is—pure, hopeful, kind—but can also feel the grownup she might become. You can see how the positive traits in her might get corrupted or eroded as she gets older and, best of all, you don’t feel it as a judgment of her, really: just a beautiful little accurate portrait of what it feels like to be young.
O.K., so I’ve been carrying that idea of “After the Theatre” around all these years, and one day I think: I wonder if I could do something analogous? That is, make an uninflected picture of a teenage girl. And I try it. It’s funny enough, she’s kind of sweet, but somehow it doesn’t feel complete enough to qualify as a story. Suddenly, a guy shows up, and a few drafts later, turns out this guy is a potential kidnapper. And the story now has energy, and I suddenly know where to go with it, and off I go. But I’m interested in that moment right there, where my working definition of “story” requires me to introduce a kind of drama that (one could say) is a little, I dunno—melodramatic? Hyper?
In a sense this is all academic—or maybe just applies to the stories to come. When I got to that moment I had no doubts, and am happy enough with the story (“Victory Lap”) that resulted. But I do love books where the plot/drama is either slight or where we understand them to be non-urgent, sort of like red herrings or MacGuffins, there just so that the comedy can proceed. I’m thinking here of, say, Dead Souls or Confederacy of Dunces.
I just (so far) can’t do it.
As far as what powers the individual books along—I tend to just work for four to seven years and then at some point, I start to feel that group of stories closing out. I basically just trust that if I’ve been working hard all along, there must be something essential going on under the surface that will unite the stories, and hopefully in some deeper way than I could have planned or imposed. It’s maybe something like if you were constantly tape-recording yourself for five years but at the end of every week you deleted all but the wittiest things you’d said. Then, at the end of the five years, you went through the edited things that remained, and edited those down. During that time, you were who you were—for better or worse.
PD You mentioned earlier about things you keep attempting to do, to see that you can’t do them, though feel compelled to keep trying. And I doubt you’re alone. Are there specific instances of this that loom large?
GS Well, it’s funny—you sent me this question yesterday and I’ve been wrestling with it ever since. It isn’t the case that I have this 300-page sincere novel off to the side. Rather, I think it’s more of a tendency I have to swerve away from certain material or ideas or notions, year after year, and then occasionally look back at the body of work that’s built up, and think: Huh, you still haven’t started on the Big Stuff yet. (I feel especially remiss when I think in terms of scale: where is my epic? Why all of this obsessing on small canvases? This is probably the expected midlife crisis for someone who learned early that if my writing was going to have any power, I was going to have to radically concern myself with the lapidary.) Now, in some cases, this swerving is a good thing. I don’t know how many times I’ve thought: “You know, what I’d like to do, is write a really big book about some really big city, and my themes would be, just, you know everything, and my main idea stylistically would be, uh, like: All is Allowed!” That has the feeling of something that, in order to avoid becoming a sinkhole, might benefit from a little more, uh… .specificity.
But let me tell you a little anecdote, and with apologies, because I’ve been telling this one on the road a bit lately—but it’s somehow central (in a way I haven’t quite figured out yet) to this whole issue for me.
A few years ago I was cutting through Rockefeller Center, and I glanced up and found myself in front of that really nice chocolate shop down there—can’t remember the name of it. But it was early December and they had the window all X-mas-tricked-out, and I got this involuntary thrill of the exact variety I used to get as a kid when I realized X-mas vacation was looming: kind of this presents-are-coming, freedom-is-approaching, life-is-so-beautiful leaping of the heart that felt both totally familiar and entirely fresh. It was corny, it was all Currier & Ives—but the feeling was as real as the pigeons over there on Fifth or that scrap of paper right there, you know? Just a little split-second thrill, really, with that kind of associated imagistic mind-nostalgia burst (pinesmellgoldenpapercookiesnowman) that, again, is as real as more familiar mind-states, like, say, anxiety, or dizziness. So as I was walking away I thought, as us writers are wont to do: “Hey, I wonder if I could use that in a story?” I felt that, yes, I probably could use it—that is, I could probably find a way to generate some text that would convey that sense, make it real, or some pleasure-giving exaggerated version of it—and that was exciting. But then I felt this blowback sense of discomfort, almost dread, that had to do with this feeling of: Well, O.K. but then what? Or, put more precisely: I was feeling a little insecure with the notion of letting that moment of positive energy just stand there, without some sort of ironic caveat. My first instinct, having written this little vignette (middle-aged man has a mini-burst of happiness), would be, you know, to make an icicle come down and impale him through the head. Or, maybe if I could locate him in some ironic place (a theme park, say (!)) I’d be able to “get away with it.” Which was weird: Dickens would have let it stand. Ditto Tolstoy. If they had to complicate it (i.e., show that this feeling might have repercussions, or might be just part of who this man was, i.e., was not him in his totality) they would have had have the confidence to wait a few hundred pages to do so.
So I’ve seen doing a lot of thinking about that: why do I always feel the need for what we might call the obligatory-edgy.
Now, this gets complicated. Because I first discovered the obligatory-edgy (and the happy effect it had on the energy of my prose) when my work was dying of complete boredom for want of it. So excising this thing (if it is, in fact, “a thing”), at least in theory, can feel like a step backwards. (And I’ve done this a few times over the years, in individual stories that then didn’t fly, at which time I learned the whole lesson over again—I remember one in particular, set in an Episcopal church, that included all sorts of straightforward, precisely rendered, internal monologue bits that represented exactly the theological questions that were tormenting me at the time, and this story was a very nice, sincere, smiling bird, sans wings.)
So edginess can be a way of introducing energy, and/or an appropriate overtone of skepticism, a way of enlarging the frame, of accounting for the complications of real life. Are there fields of beautiful tulips in the world, through which two well-matched lovers stroll? You bet. But is the world an endless sequence of such fields? Ha. So, to underscore this, maybe we have a crop-duster fly over the tulip-field, and the pilot is listening to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
In terms of the above (Rockefeller Center) example, that falling icicle has the effect of saying: yes, well, this dude is happy, but there are others out there who are not, and this kind of “I am happy, therefore life must be good and fair” mentality that he is enjoying is not without consequences for the rest of the world, etc., etc., and furthermore, his feeling of happiness is not permanent, since, for example, any minute now something bad might—oops. Icicle. That is, there’s a reason to have that icicle come down through that guy’s head, and that’s to puncture his smugness. (Although that can devolve into, God help us, Moral Fiction—preachy, joyless, over-determined, unhinged from the very real pleasures of living.) But I think one of the problems with the obligatory-edgy is that it is a little impatient: it fails to account for the fact that this is an individual guy, not an emblem of something—there’s time and space in his life for him to be a lot of things. So maybe, today, he’s happy…
Also, the obligatory edgy component can also be just that: obligatory, i.e., a tic.
Sometimes when I read new fiction, I feel that the writers of it, myself included, have a somewhat dysfunctional relationship with our own culture. I don’t mean we disapprove of it. I mean that we have absorbed so much habitual disapproval of it that we are no longer able to see it, and therefore are unable to disapprove of it properly. How can you disapprove (or approve) of something you no longer see? If your palette of possible modes of representation has been habitually narrowed and restricted (to the edgy, the snarky, the hip, etc., etc.), if that palette has been shorn of, say, the spiritual, the ineffable, the earnest, the mysterious—of awe, wonder, humility, the truly unanswerable questions—then there isn’t much hope of any real newness there. Are the very real pleasures of being an American in 2011 underrepresented in our fiction? Are the very real terrors of living in other, less functional cultures, adequately taken into account when we critique our own? If America is sick, what is the exact nature of the illness? Beyond that, are we taking as much pleasure in the sensual as we should be: in, for example, the weird ways our towns and cities have accreted, the endless interesting American geographies (a line of U-Hauls 20 feet away from the pioneer graveyard, etc., etc)? Is there joy enough in what we’re doing, because God knows, life is short, and if we don’t learn, by the end, to regard all of this mess with joy, it seems to me we haven’t done our work properly.
Well, speaking of things “devolving,” this is now devolving into the literary equivalent of some middle-aged uncle at a party, ranting about how disappointing all of Creation has become, just in the last few years, especially that a-hole down at the parking garage. And I really don’t mean the above to be anything more than a representation of the kinds of swamp I find myself wallowing in, in order to keep my writing interesting, to me and hopefully to others—more of a gut-check than a manifesto.
And of course, in the end, all of the talk notwithstanding, you go in there and write the scene, and if the icicle version is more interesting than the sincere non-icicle version, you better go with it. Our hero strides away from the Rockefeller Center chocolate shop, visions of sugar-plums dancing in his head—and then you, the writer, look to see where that earlier-mentioned Frisbee is coming from, and do your best to catch it.