Category: People

George Saunders And The Intuitive Swerve

I was very lucky to see George Saunders talking about his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo this week. The man is a true inspiration. His writing is hard to categorise  – good, we say! He’s not a conventional realist, and his stories are these great shots of something we can’t predict – they have strands of the surreal, the hyperreal, the dystopian, the fantastic, the satirical, the gonzo and oddball and geek. Even more impressive is the fact he’s made himself a successful career as a published writer and a highly regarded teacher of creative writing (at Syracuse) on the basis of not publishing a novel, at least till now. Yay for not writing novels yet! If only we all were so patient.

And this novel: worth the wait! It’s quite a feat of the imagination. Many screen inches have been devoted to it already, so I shan’t repeat any of that, but what I shall say is that it contains many of my favourite things in writing: ghosts, the American Civil War, voices, intelligence, daring, swearing, exquisitely carved sentences, great liberties with history, great truths, a big heart.

His talk at Goldsmiths, where he was expertly interviewed by Erica Wagner, featured an enactment of several chapters with himself and several speakers. And, of course, it also featured many nuggets of his teaching and editorial genius, delivered with great wit and warmth and purpose. George Saunders must be a strong candidate for the writers’ writer.

Something I enjoyed in particular in his discussion of writing was this sense of a great writerly intuition uncluttered by self-consciousness or overthinking. As has been reported, this was a book that was a long time in the coming, and it seems to be a book that emerged instinctively. ‘When I wanted to outline, I didn’t,’ he said. He specifically talked about writers cultivating their ‘intuitive swerve’, discussing writing as improv, and letting the ghosts speak – his ghost characters in this book, but too I think that applies to the ghost that is any character we create.

Discussing historical fiction, he said emphatically that he doesn’t care what life was like in 1862. That’s my kinda historical fiction.

He also talked about the differences for him between writing a short story and writing a novel. This novel, of serious matters (war, a parent’s grief), required earnest writing, and his short form comes with a ‘tic of humour’ that’s pretty much a hallmark. It makes me think how some of my own short stories, written for workshops and for reading aloud at events, perhaps play a little too easily to the gallery, at the expense of digging deep. I think it’s quite an achievement to have combined humour and earnestness in Lincoln in the Bardo.

George Saunders also stressed the importance of revision – important in so many ways. First (and I think he quoted Einstein here?), he talked about problems needing solutions beyond the plateau of their conception. Of course our first drafts need work, and maybe lots of it! And revision offers so many chances to rework and fix and tweak and polish –  ‘the little move is what distinguishes you’, he said. He parsed the sentence ‘Frank came into the room and sat on the brown couch’, showing how many of those words, or those sorts of words, are superfluous (we ended up with just ‘Frank’). Through pruning away and leaving some work for the reader, we grow a respect for the reader, which creates intimacy.

George Saunders also advocates empathy more broadly as a cure for the tensions of these politically divided times. He describes Trump voters, for example, as including the sort of ordinary people he grew up among, and he met many too in reporting from the 2016 campaign trail, describing them as nice, affable, not angry. ‘How much compassion can you give? An infinite amount.’ And this gets embodied, of course, in the shining example of Lincoln in his book, as he told the Washington Post:

The main thing that I feel is — whatever you want to say about Lincoln — his empathy expanded as he lived. He was probably a typically racist Indiana boy. And then those last three years, his pot of empathy went out to include everybody: his soldiers, of course, these millions of Americans who were being enslaved, even the South. So that’s why we love him, I think because with all that pressure on him and all that hatred coming toward him, he didn’t turn to the haters and disabuse them; he actually tried to include them in his love.

Though too he cautioned about the enabling dangers of what the Tibetan Buddhists call ‘idiot compassion’, something that we perhaps need to hear more often. (I am sick of all the pandering, and I want my country back.)

Finally, Saunders also warned all writers against ego. ‘Don’t get ambitious. Don’t get elated.’

All round, a very brilliant and engaging evening. I am so lazy nowadays, one of those lazy home-working Londoners, and I don’t go out that much. But it was only the next day that I realised I’d schlepped all the way to SE and back (left the house at 4.30, got back at 10.30) without hesitating to think about it, because if you are serious about writing you don’t miss up the chance to listen to someone as brilliant and much loved as George Saunders speak.

A few Saunders links here:

* What Writers Really Do When They Write, by George Saunders – sterling advice

* Powell’s interview with George Saunders, February 2017

George Saunders interviewed in Vanity Fair, March 2017

* Who Are All These Trump Supporters? by George Saunders, from the New Yorker, July 2016

* The Anton Chekhov-George Saunders Humanity Kit: An Introduction – a real treat for syllabus geeks in the form of course paraphernalia from one of the great teacher’s courses at Syracuse

PS Sadly, I didn’t get my book signed. There were a ton of people in the queue, over a hundred surely, and it moved maybe one spot in the fifteen minutes I did wait. But I had a train to catch, and a city to cross! I did of course enter my own imagined space of how to commune with the great man among so many fanboys and -girls, and puzzled about the least smarmy way to ask if, given his interest in Tibetan Buddhism, he’d visited Naropa University during his time at the Colorado School of Mines, where he was an undergraduate. But I’d probably have only got tongue-tied and blushed and blabbed, anyway. Here’s the front of the adoring queue on my way out.

Thank You, Meryl

At the weekend I discovered this extraordinarily rousing speech of Meryl Streep accepting her National Ally For Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign. Following her Golden Globes speech in January, it’s very stirring, and very moving.

The audience just LOVES her. My people do make for good audiences, don’t they? (The HRC is an American civil rights organisation campaigning for LGBTQ equality.) I am reminded how, when I was younger, and closety, I affected a crush on Meryl Streep. I pinned up a newspaper clipping of her above my bed. I don’t think I fooled my family or friends, really – I was just fooling myself. Alternate energies were in truth simultaneously diverted towards Harrison Ford.

Meryl is just marvellous here – an inspiration. She always has been. So big-hearted, so funny, so smart. So many great roles. Holocaust, Kramer vs Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, Out Of Africa. Postcards From The Edge, Mamma Mia, The Hours, The Iron Lady, The Devil Wears Prada. Julie and Julia. Angels In America! Always so fearless and committed.

We are so lucky that we have so many bold, smart, funny women using the power and privilege that they do enjoy to stand up and speak out right now. They could just take the cheque, and smile sweetly, and then fade away with a homily or two. But they don’t, thank goddess. I’m also thinking of JK Rowling – not only does she tell great stories, and give the best commencement addresses, and troll tyrants, but she curates exquisitely too, judging by her retweets. It’s good to have people like this on our side, as allies. As examples of artists committed to the work of the imagination.

So for International Women’s Day, let’s take their example, and be compelled. Stand Up. Speak Up. Act Up.

 

I Remember York (2013)

GratefulWhippet

I remember the Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing 2013.

I remember it was Friday the 13th.

I remember the quiet carriage.

I remember people crowding on to the train before most of us had got off.

I remember sun, and rain, and going back for an umbrella.

I remember bunting, and a loving balloon. Well, I think it was a balloon.

I remember little chunks of coffee cake. I had one with Saturday’s lunch, but two on Sunday.

I remember using Windows again. It looked different, and improved. I actually felt a little bit jealous.

I remember losing my voice.

I remember a very kind glass of water.

I remember a very nice glass of champagne.

I remember my English teacher Mrs Blakemore used to mark us down if we used the word ‘nice’ in a sentence. Yes, we have to be concrete and specific in our word choices, but sometimes an often-used word is just right.

I remember Harry (in sunglasses), and Beth and Tom (not in sunglasses). Ah!

I remember being called a recovering publisher.

I remember channelling my inner Sharon Osbourne. ‘You go, girl!’ (I wish I’d had the balls actually to say that.)

I remember, the next morning, discovering I’d left the label on the sleeve of my new jacket as I sat on a stage in front of hundreds of people. And they were writers, so they could read, and what they could read was Marks and Spencer Sartorial. (And who knew I’d end up in Marks and Spencer Blue Harbour so soon.)

I remember not remembering if I’d worn these boxer shorts before :/ Sniff, sniff.

I remember my opinion of literary agents rising.

I remember saying that ‘Opinion is the death of thinking’ is a very elegant sentence, illustrating, for any number of good reasons, how to balance noun and verb forms in your writing.

I remember saying how ‘Opinion is the death of thinking’ is an important sentiment for a divided world.

I remember being very opinionated.

I remember saying The Slap is a book that must be read; you must overcome your prejudices against its (apparent) prejudices, because the prejudices are critiquing prejudice, not prejudices in themselves. And if you can’t see that, maybe you should stick to reading the Farrow & Ball colour chart.

I remember telling any number of writers it might be best not to open their novels with that cliché of someone waking (especially from a dream).

I then remember remembering that The Slap opens with someone waking up. But at least its very first page has a fart under the sheets and some very spicy language.

I remember realising I was ranting when I was rattling on about the deficiencies of the learning and teaching of writing in British schools and universities. Oops!

I remember thinking that sometimes people’s written stories only really come to life when they are talking about them (and by that I mean talking conversationally, not delivering some worried-about pitch).

I remember repeating that mantra that you should trust your natural speaking voice. Sometimes those sentences that you speak aloud are the ones that need to go down on the page. ‘I used to work in Jarrow, and my office looked down on the street where Catherine Cookson used to live.’

I remember telling people to write I remembers.

I remember widely recommending Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin and Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale.

I remember telling people that their writing is an act of giving to a reader. When do you give, when do you hold back?

I remember needing extra chairs and handouts.

I remember not having time to get to the tightening and brightening exercise. One to finish at home. (No Right Answers, just variations on a theme.)

I remember knowing I must have been snoring, and hoping my neighbours never noticed. Halls of residences have very thin walls.

I remember thinking that York University students must be very thin, because their showerheads are very close to the walls (like, two inches away).

I remember porridge, and prunes.

I remember a robot, mothers, teachers, detectives, an engineer, a creepy neighbour, and an abbot who bangs his fist on the table.

I remember the Weimar Republic, Ireland, Africa, the Lebanon, the 70s, rings, sewers, a tsunami, a prison.

I remember listening with mother, great-grandchildren, dogs, teachers, divorces, a doctor, a New Zealander, the Olympic stadium in Berlin.

I remember Yorkshirewomen, more dogs, four cats and a doctor, a lorry driver, a costume shop, Australians, self-publishers, and a Black Country accent stronger than my own.

I remember even more dogs, and lovely dog-lovers, and an apparently grateful whippet (dogs really can communicate, you know – especially with their eyes).

I remember loving dog-people, and realising they’re probably even stranger than cat-people.

I remember thinking that I love the job of working with writers because you meet so many colourful, sweet, funny, crazy-assed people, and hear so many colourful, sweet, funny, crazy-assed and very moving stories.

I thank all those people for sharing so much.

I remember marking dates in my diary for 2014.

 

PS I will remember to post links and other info from the workshops later in the week. (Update: I did remember, eventually, but did forget some things I needed to add later. But here are my notes on York as well as notes on the book doctor one-on-ones, and here also is a Friday Writing Experiment from last year introducing variations on the idea of ‘I Remember’. And all credit to Joe Brainard and his own ‘I Remember’, now in its own very handsome UK edition.)

Friday Writing Experiment No. 26: Distinguishing Features

AsSweetAsHoney

Our aunt Meterling stood over six feet tall, a giantess, a tree. From her limbs came huge hands, which always held a shower of snacks for us children. We could place two of our feet in one of her sandals, and her green shawl made for a roof to cover our play forts. We loved Meterling, because she was so devotedly freakish, because she rained everyone with affection, and because we felt that anyone that tall had to be supernaturally gifted. No one actually said she was a ghost, or a saint, or a witch, but we watched for signs nevertheless. She knew we suspected her of tricks, for she often smiled at us and displayed sleight of hand, pulling coins and shells out of thin air. But that, said Rasi, didn’t prove anything; Rasi had read The Puffin Book of Magic Tricks and pretty much knew them all, and was not so easily impressed.

Thus begins the novel As Sweet As Honey by my good friend Indira Ganesan. It’s just been published by Knopf.

Indira’s writing possesses a beautiful tone: warm, seductive, lots of colour and sense experiences. And in this book she brings to life a whole set of characters from a family whose lives take us to a fictitious island in the Indian Ocean, and then to England and the United States. It’s an intriguing and magical story about the surprises life throws in our way, and how families deal with them; ultimately, for me, it’s a book about how we make our homes.

And at the centre of the book is this amazing figure, wonderfully rendered: Meterling, the giant aunt. We’ve all had important figures in our childhoods, in our families, and we’ve also all met memorable characters in our reading. Meterling is the character who looms large, quite literally, in this book, and she does so through the simple fact that she’s so tall.

I remember Indira sharing early selections from this book at readings, and that giantess really stuck in my mind ever since. It’s such a simple yet powerful thing to do (and the most powerful things are usually the simplest): giving a character a distinctive physical attribute. And it can be helpful in letting the character take over the writing, too. Indira says: ‘Once I let Meterling become the protagonist, the book became so much easier to write.’

External features, in many ways, also define the inner lives of the characters who possess them, but not always in predictable ways. And this is where the writing gets interesting. As well as Meterling, I’m thinking of one of my favourite characters of late: Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf wit and scheming genius of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. But there are other traits, not just height: scars, missing limbs, extra limbs, freckles (Anne of Green Gables), hair colour, hair deficiency, hairiness, body weight, big feet, little hands, harelips (Precious Bane! Her mother: ‘Could I help it if the hare crossed my path – could I help it?’).

So, this week, write the opening page of a novel in which you introduce a character who, by dint of some physical attribute, will loom large in the lives of all the other characters.

And do read Indira’s book as well! Amazon might be the easiest place to buy in the UK, but try to support your local indie if you can, especially if you are in the US. It’s also available from HarperCollins India in South Asia, and as an audiobook from Audible (this might be a lovely one to have read to you, in fact). And here’s Indira’s Facebook Page, too.

A Conversation With Ray Bradbury

I’m (finally) tidying/unpacking/autmun-cleaning my study (a year after moving in), and of course turn to the Web to find something to listen to while I dust and shelve and shuffle one pile from here to there, and da da, via another link (thanks, Patsy! a great clip from Kurt Vonnegut on how to write a short story), I came across this fabulous and inspirational short film by Lawrence Bridges in which Ray Bradbury, the man who’s perhaps the greatest teacher of all, and almost certainly the loveliest and most enthusiastic, talks about his inspirations: fantasy and dinosaurs and Steinbeck and Dickens, and how libraries fulfil you, and most of all how you must place Love at the centre of your universe:

The things that you do should be things that you love, and things that you love should be things that you do.

Love again as a spur.

Enjoy!

PS he was a famous non-driver, too. I collect these: Ray Bradbury, Allen Ginsberg, Ricky Gervais, David Attenborough, Nigel Slater, Albert Einstein. I’m in good company. Oh well, can’t be helped.