by guest contributor Samantha Campbell
Thursday, October 10th kicked off the 17th season of the Pen Pal series put on by the Friends of the Hennepin County Library. On stage, beneath a couple of giant mice (the reading was held in the Children’s Theater at the Hopkins Center for the Arts), George Saunders gave the first lecture of the season. A nationally acclaimed writer of novellas, short stories, essays, and children’s books, Saunders was recently named to the long list for the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction for his story collection, Tenth of December.
The talk centered on craft, and Saunders opened the lecture with a lengthy discussion of his writing process and philosophy. He starts each day by returning to what he wrote the day before. Trying to be as subjective as possible, he reads through the work to weed out anything superfluous as well as taking note of where he gets “negative” feelings. When those moments arise, Saunders tries to pinpoint what is not working for him—is it this sentence? Does this character feel disingenuous?—and then he rewrites.
A staunch advocate of story advancement, Saunders asserts that if a character or scene does not advance the story, it should be cut. Channeling his “inner nun” (and her whip stick) he reminds himself not to waste the reader’s time and not to be condescending. That said, advancement has nothing to do with pace. When he cannot finish a story to his liking, Saunders believes in saving it for later. He’s notorious for sitting on stories for long periods of time. Most notably, he sat on one story for 14 years before finally finishing it.
When developing ideas, Saunders notes that he throws out a story if he already knows exactly how it will end. His mantra is “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” He contends that plotted out stories can come off as condescending to the reader (a debate that was continued in the Q&A portion of the evening) which is something he strives not to do.
Through the description of his writing process, Saunders constantly stressed what he considers the most important aspect of writing short stories—sincerity. When an MFA student from the University of Minnesota asked what he looks for in other’s writing, Saunders replied that when a writer tries to be clever or outsmart the reader, the work usually does not feel honest. On the flip side, when there is a moment or two of complete sincerity, even in small details—Saunders responds positively.
From there, Saunders described the years of his life that he spent imitating Hemingway. One day he heard his wife’s laughter in the kitchen upon finding some dirty limericks he had composed while at work and discarded on the counter, and in that moment he realized that by imitating Hemingway’s style he was stifling his own writing voice. Saunders compared this realization to climbing a mountain. On the top of the mountain was Hemingway standing on a little raised platform with his arms outstretched but, even if Saunders reached the top, the platform was only big enough for Hemingway. So he came down from Hemingway Mountain and started to climb his own.
Throughout the evening, Saunders was witty and insightful and, like his stories, he came off as very sincere. The crowd was lively and devoured his advice. They also showered him with a wide range of questions. What is the earliest bedtime story you remember? Were you influenced by Tibetan Monks?
That said, Saunders’ voice and commentary on craft hasn’t always been well received. The favorite moment of the night occurred when Saunders read aloud a letter he had received from a reader who was none too pleased with his expletive use of language. Saunders responded with a thoughtful seven page letter, and received only a postcard in response. His critic noted that she appreciated the thoughtful response but, due to the fact that it was “planting season,” she would not respond in kind.
To summarize quickly, George Saunders was a genuine character and Pen Pals attendees seemed glad to have spent an evening in his company.
The Pen Pals season runs through May at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. Next up on the roster is Man Booker prize winning novelist, A.S. Byatt, on November 4th. Visit their website to get more info and purchase tickets.