While the seminar convened at the San Carlos for Teju Cole’s talk on “Power and Subjectivity,” a few miles away another audience gathered at Key West High School, where George Saunders spoke about “writing as a form of power” and “making yourself real.”
To an audience comprised mainly of juniors and seniors, Saunders emphasized writing as rewriting and revision, as well as self-discovery. “Revise it to taste, to your taste,” he encouraged, and your most distinctive qualities and values will reveal themselves to you. “I’m not crazy about myself,” he joked. “I talk too fast and I’m going bald, and I have anxiety, which can make me distracted. Myself, I could take or leave. But in writing, I can spend two or three hours and find a self that is better, deeper, funnier, edgier. In the writing there is a lot of edge and a lot of truth, a better self I didn’t know I was.”
Saunders referred to an “inner-nun” as well, a vestige of his Catholic school days when writing was “like hygiene…you wrote well because the nuns made you.” But his conclusions about revision were ultimately less strict, and more curious. He improvised a dialogue between himself and a soft-spoken, not quite there yet story. “Rather than thinking, ‘Oh no, I suck,’” he said (a resonant remark for a teenager), “Turn to the story and ask, ‘What’s the matter?’” Saunders adopted a meek child’s voice and admitted, “Well … I’m boring,” and under the pressure of his curiosity and tenderness, the story confessed that the problem was “mostly on page six.”
Laughter bubbled up from an audience who enjoyed being assured that first drafts are always bad, can always be improved, and writing is not a “20-minute audition” to find out whether you are “good or terrible.” It takes “so many passes through” to write well, he said. If you’re interested, “one super power is the ability to come back again and again with hope and without despair.” Encouraging them to let go of expectations, judgment and attachment, when you think “even the coffee stain on the page is something perfect,” Saunders told students to imagine a meter gauging positive and negative as they read their own work: “The fun begins, in a sense, when the needle goes into the negative.”
Saunders leaned against the front of the stage in the expansive auditorium, and delivered his talk with a hand-held microphone to be nearer to his audience of 130 very lucky teenagers. Moving into a conversational Q&A, students asked great questions and received thought-provoking answers, advice, and cumulatively, a reading list that should keep them busy for a while. Students will want to read Victory Lap to find out how the girl finally escapes her abductor, Sea Oak for the full zombie story of Aunt Bernie, Flannery O’Connor, David Foster Wallace’s This is Water, maybe look up the quotes from Barthelme and Einstein, not to mention Lincoln in the Bardo, the latest book by Saunders. In describing it to them, he said, “Most of the characters are ghosts who have been dead long enough that they feel powerless, like when you stay at a party too long, but it’s the story of a young boy’s ghost and an almost viral goodness.”
One student asked what to do about writer’s block, and Saunders invoked Wallace’s idea that it is really a case of having set artificially too high standards. “If you drop your standards enough, you can always write. Having writer’s block, on some level, is not having confidence in revision,” Saunders concluded. Another student who had spent the previous day’s English class discussing Fox 8 and the commencement speech Congratulations, by the way, both by Saunders, asked, “Would you recommend writing about what you know, or what you want to write about?” Saunders used his Civilwarland in Bad Decline as an example of a story that diverges from lived experience on one level, but explained, “If you live your life fully with eyes and heart open, anything you write will reflect what you know.” Another classmate observed that the character Fox 8 had a similar perspective on fatherhood to Saunders in his speech, and asked if the character was based off himself. “Oh, yeah, sure. Totally…did Fox 8 have kids?” he laughed. “The dirty little secret is you’re always basing it off yourself.”
Saunders extemporaneously edited two sentences for the crowd, one so mundane or irrelevant that he pared it down to nothing but the character’s name. With another, he expanded provocatively from, “Bill was a jerk,” to “Bill snapped at the young barista who reminded him of his dead ex-wife.” The sentence elicited both laughs and sympathetic moans from the audience, and Saunders smiled, “Poor Bill; Poor barista,” implying that now a real story was emerging. Saunders said that he wanted the relationship between author and reader to be an intimate conversation “where you’re always leaning into me like a friend.” On the one hand, eliminating a redundant word eliminates condescension: “When I cut it down I’m telling you I respect you.” On the other, when he added closely observed detail and took away short-hand clichés, Saunders said the work becomes “more interesting, kinder, when your eyes and ears are open to the world.”
After the class bell rang, many students lingered to speak with Saunders, take pictures, and get books signed. Others had already been on the Internet to read more Saunders after being inspired in Betsy Ford’s AP English class, and some inquired about attending the KWLS open sessions on Sunday afternoon. One young man asked, “How do you not get frustrated? I struggle to be patient, and I push it away.” Saunders suggested that maybe it was part of his process. “Let yourself push it away, but then make yourself return to it after ten minutes. Ask yourself, what happened just before I pushed it away? Writing isn’t you,” he continued, “It’s just something you do. Issues are not really problems. Do your best. Approach with love and kindness. Writing is supposed to be fun, joyful, alive. Joy, not fear, is really useful, and nothing is intellectually hefty unless you’re having a good time.”
There is so much more great material from Saunders’ talk Friday at the high school, so if you see any teenagers in the San Carlos later this weekend, be sure to ask them for their personal highlights.
Many thanks to KWHS teachers Betsy Ford, Cameron Murray, and Kristen Kapfer.