George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo and several excellent short story collections, visited Rutgers the other day to do a reading. I went to his master class, which was an informal-ish discussion and Q&A for students and rabid Saunders fans like me. He showed up, this ordinary man in jeans and a button up shirt, carrying a water bottle and looking a little shy. He has written some of the funniest, saddest, most memorable stories I’ve read (see: “Victory Lap.” See” “Puppy”). I couldn’t believe we were in the same room, and I couldn’t believe how he just acted like this regular person you might see on the subway. I always imagine successful fiction writers as somehow having an other-worldly, untouchable glow. George (may I call him “George?”) appeared very approachable and modest; he’s a teacher too, after all, at Syracuse University, but, I mean his writing has been published in The New Yorker. I am certain that if I ever have a story published in The New Yorker, I will forever forward shun ordinary folk. As the conversation progressed, he was funny, self-deprecating, smart, and generous with his advice. I took notes because my memory is never reliable (and also because if he happened to look up at me, I wanted him to see someone who was really paying attention).
These are a few of the pieces of advice he offered for beginning fiction writers.
- He related a story about how his mentor, writer Tobias Wolff, said Saunders was allotted only three dreams sequences for his entire writing career and cautioned that he should “use them wisely.” For beginning writers, this suggestion seems particularly important—dream sequences in fiction are about as interesting as dream explanations by our co-workers. Unless we’re in them, who cares? (This is my interpretation, not George’s).
- When a student asked what to do about her work being criticized for being too “raw,” he asked a few more questions, trying to get closer to what she meant. The woman said that her nonfiction was confessional and difficult for others to read. He nodded, and suggested she go back to the page and see if there is a deeper level to the truth she was uncovering. He suggested she turn toward the criticism from peers, not away from it. He said that most people know what works for them or doesn’t. The writing is for the imagined audience, so we must always be seeking to engage them, and to charm them, line by line. If we can bear to look more closely at our own work, we might uncover something even more beautiful and truer.
- Even if you are a young person who hasn’t not necessarily experienced great disaster, you are still allowed to write about trauma. He quoted Chekhov. I wasn’t able to write it all down fast enough so I looked it up just now: “There ought to be a man with a hammer behind the door of every happy man, to remind him by his constant knocks that there are unhappy people, and that happy as he himself may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws…” We have all experienced some degree of misery and pain, and so it’s okay to try to imagine it in other contexts. On a related note, his breakthrough moment as a writer was when he realized that he was allowed to explore this human suffering and also allowed to make it entertaining.
- Most dialogue is really a monologue. In other words, in real life and in fiction, we are often speaking not directly to one another, but rather continuing whatever we’re thinking, regardless of what the other person is saying. I find this to be depressing and true. I am working on in my personal life, but in fiction, it’s a useful bit of wisdom. Our characters have their own internal thoughts and egos, and so may actually respond to those things more than what’s being said by another character. We often talk past one another.
- Fiction requires empathy training. We have to understand and care about our villains as much as our heroes. Give the bad guy a limp, a vulnerability, something that the reader can identify with so that he is more alive and complicated.
- Consider putting down the phone and/or getting off-line. Take a break from social media and go read some James Joyce. As artists, part of our job is to keep reading. Rework your life so that you are both reading and writing more. Twitter will wait for you.
- Be more Buddhist. He did not suggest this—but I am. He did mention that he is Buddhist, and I think that approaching our characters with more humility, attention, and empathy can only help to make them (and the story) more engaging for the reader.
- And lastly, make life easier by allowing yourself to throw some words on a page without worrying them to death. Put something in place conditionally, even if you think you will probably get rid of it later. It’s too much pressure to agonize in the beginning, so give yourself a break. Later, you will go back and find the places where the text is boring or the dialogue sounds mechanical. For now, just write it.