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George Saunders' magic trick
And five snippets of his advice, from a bright October morning by the Thames.
Paying subscribers can listen to me read this post aloud here or on your podcast app.
First, a quick reminder that we’re getting together for an In Writing Creative Hour this Sunday 30 October at 10am, UK time. This is an hour-long session on Google Meet where we chat a bit, and then write together in companionable silence. I’ll be sending out the link to paying subscribers a few hours before we start.
If you’re a paying subscriber and this sounds like your thing, but you live in a timezone that makes 10am UK time impossible, please let me know in the comments where you are. It may be that I could alternate, so that some of these sessions are held at 10am and others at 6pm, for example, to give more people the chance to join in. I’d like to make the Creative Hours available to as many of you as possible. They really are fun and productive – plus I like meeting you.
Last Saturday, I met George Saunders. He was briefly in the UK to promote his new short-story collection, Liberation Day, and he was interviewed on stage at the London Literature Festival by the excellent Hannah MacInnes.
I’ve sort of met George before, in that we had a wonderful conversation for the In Writing podcast last year – but not really, because it was recorded via audio link, with him at his home in New York state and me at mine, in London. He has subsequently been very kind in recommending this newsletter, and I know an astonishing proportion of you found it via him (I’m so grateful you did). So I was glad to be able to say hello face to face before Saturday’s event.
We had a lovely chat, and George told me about clearing out and selling his house in New York – three weeks of packing and sorting through decades of stuff. Frankly, it’s the kind of task I would go to serious lengths to avoid, but he only said how lucky it made him feel, for the wonderful life that he’s had.
I was struck again by a rare and remarkable quality that George has. It’s a sort of thoughtful, compassionate positivity. That’s not to say his stories are saccharine or Pollyanna-ish, because they aren’t at all, and he’s also very funny – and I don’t think you can be funny if you aren’t realistic about life, or if you won’t acknowledge and even sometimes enjoy the things that are foolish or disgusting or horrible. But I think through all of that, he has a way of making people feel encouraged and hopeful. It’s magic. And in addition to his storytelling, I believe it’s the reason why he’s so loved.
During the interview itself, I felt very fired-up about writing. I had a surge of motivation. I sat there quietly promising myself that I would start treating my ‘own’ writing as my number one thing in life, giving it priority over the other writing that I do to make a living. I feel slightly less confident about this now than I did on Saturday morning, sitting there in the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall – but I’m trying to hang on to the feeling.
To help me do that and to share the joy with you, here are a few great bits of wisdom (paraphrased by me, hopefully not missing the point too badly) from Hannah’s interview with George.
1. Read and watch and analyse everything
‘All of that stuff you put in there is going to get into your artistic body and you don’t even have to think about it,’ said George. Just trust that if you’re consuming interesting stories and being thoughtful about them, they’re informing your own work in a way that you don’t have to understand.
2. Don’t underestimate the power of empathy
George quoted Walt Whitman: ‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’ You can imagine characters who aren’t like you, and with a little effort you can even understand them, he suggested. Maybe you’re pro-immigration, but if you were asked to do an impersonation of someone who is anti-immigration, you could have a decent shot at it. You could work out where they’re coming from, even if you wouldn’t endorse their point of view. ‘As a fiction writer it’s an incredible gift,’ he said. ‘If you don’t know what to think of a person, you lean in a little closer.’
3. Literature is the anti-social media
Writing literature takes a long time – it’s not off the cuff. It can be nuanced and ambiguous, and it’s a place where empathy thrives. It’s not Twitter!
4. Your faults might be your strengths
George tells his students, he said, not to get hung up on their weaknesses, but to try and see them another way. Imposter syndrome, for example, is just good taste or high standards. You can make that useful in your writing, in a way that’s particular to you.
I relate to this, because I can be over-sensitive (I’m told). It has drawbacks and I’m working on it. But sensitivity is also one of my strengths as a friend and, I think, as a writer. Nobody’s perfect, but all is not lost just because you tend to be verbose (you’re thorough!), you have a short attention span (you’re energetic!) or you’ve thus far been too scared to show your writing to anyone (you have great respect for the form!).
5. If you don’t feel creative, maybe you can be reactive instead
Don’t get hung up on how full of ideas you are or aren’t, said George. Read what you’ve got so far and see if you can just react to it, and move it on in that way. ‘Lowering the bar on artistic anxiety is the way to get on top of your writing.’
If you didn’t come from there in the first place, do head over to George’s Substack for more of this kind of thinking.
Thank you to subscriber Michelle, who after last week’s post on word choice, shared this brilliant article from the British Psychological Society, about a study carried out by researchers Cynthia S. Q. Siew, Tomas Engelthaler and Thomas T. Hills. In the paper Nymph piss and gravy orgies: Local and global contrast effects in relational humor (already funny), they argue that words we hear rarely are funnier than everyday words – presumably because of the surprise factor.
They studied pairs of random words in order to see which combinations made people laugh. It’s worth reading the whole article, but I’ll just leave you with the three pairs they generated that got the biggest LOLs: ‘polka hooker’, ‘playboy parrot’, and ‘penis weasel’. Thank you and good day.
As always, come and say hello here if you’re new to In Writing.
I’m looking forward to seeing some of you on Sunday morning, but until then – good luck with your writing this week.
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