Literature and Life
Ask a writer why he/she writes and you get a variety of answers, depending on what time of day it is, what they’ve just eaten (or haven’t eaten), what is going on in the world, etc. At the core of it all, though, most will admit it is because they feel a need to let out what is in their head. I really like the way George Saunders puts it: “It seems to me a worthy goal: try to create a representation of consciousness that’s durable and truthful, i.e., that accounts, somewhat, for all the strange, tiny, hard-to-articulate, instantaneous, unwilled things that actually go on in our minds in the course of a given day, or even a given moment.”
Here is how Saunders describes himself: “I was born in Amarillo, Texas, grew up in Chicago, and (barely) graduated from the Colorado School of Mines with a degree in exploration geophysics. There was an oil-boom on, which meant that even someone like me could get work in the oil-fields. So after college I went to work in Sumatra, as a field geophysicist. We worked four weeks on and two weeks off, in a jungle camp that was a forty-minute helicopter ride to the nearest town – so this is when my reading life really started. The game became filling up an entire suitcase with books sufficient to get me through the next two weeks of camp life. About a year and a half at this job, I got sick after going swimming in a river that was polluted with monkey shit (I remember looking up at about 200 of them, sitting on our oil pipeline crapping away, and thinking: “I wonder if swimming here is okay?”) and came home to try and be Kerouac II. I worked as a doorman, a roofer, a convenience store clerk, and a slaughterhouse worker (a “knuckle-puller,” to be exact), and all of this contributed to my understanding of capitalism as a benign-looking thing that, as Terry Eagleton says, “plunders the sensuality of the body.”
“I’d always been interested in reading, ever since a nun I was secretly in love with turned me on to “Johnny Tremaine” in third grade. But I’d never met a writer and so it took me awhile to realize that a person could actually write for a living. In 1986, at a wild party in Amarillo, Texas, I found a copy of People Magazine in which Jay McInernry and Raymond Carver were profiled. Before this, I’d never heard of an MFA program. I applied to Syracuse, got in, and had the great good fortune of studying there with Tobias Wolff and Douglas Unger. I also met my future wife, Paula Redick there, and we got engaged in three weeks, which I believe is still a program record.”
Saunders is quite the prolific writer, having written books, articles for “The New Yorker” and “GQ” magazines, a best-selling children’s book, two screenplays, and a host of essays and short stories which have won him high praise and awards. He has taught at the Syracuse MFA program since 1996 encouraging other young writers just as he himself had been. “In 2001, I was selected by “Entertainment Weekly” as one of the 100 top most creative people in entertainment and by “The New Yorker in 2002 as one of the best writers 40 and under. In 2006, I was awarded both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2009 I received an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.”
George Saunders lives in the Catskills of upper New York State but it was a writer born in Birmingham, Alabama and raised in Washington state that got him there to study. Tobias Wolff is an American short story writer, memoirist, novelist, and teacher of creative writing. He is known for his memoirs, particularly “This Boy’s Life” and “In Pharaoh’s Army”. He has written two short story collections, including “The Barracks Thief”, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Wolff received a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in September 2015.
It was Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” that convinced Saunders he wanted Wolff as a mentor. The book is a collection of twelve stories with such characters as a teenage boy who tells morbid lies about his home life; a timid professor who, in the first genuine outburst of her life, pours out her opinions in spite of a protesting audience; a prudish loner who gives an obnoxious hitchhiker a ride; and an elderly couple on a golden anniversary cruise who endure the offensive conviviality of the ship’s social director. Fondly yet sharply drawn, Wolff’s characters stumble over each other in their baffled yet resolute search for the “right path.”
George Saunders has said that “fiction has a way of reminding us that we actually are very similar in our emotions and neurology and our desires and our fears.” He describes his process this way: “So for me the approach has become to go into a story not really sure of what I want to say, try to find some little seed crystal of interest, a sentence or an image or an idea, and as much as possible divest myself of any deep ideas about it. And then by this process of revision, mysteriously it starts to accrete meanings as you go.”
“Character is the sum total of things you can’t explain.” Maybe this why some writers have a hard time explaining why they write. Saunders has said that his greatest fear would be to discover he has gone through his life sleepwalking. “To me, the writer’s main job is to just make the story unscroll in such a way that the reader is snared … seeing things happen and caring about them. And if you dedicate yourself to this job, the meanings more or less take care of themselves. We try, we fail, we posture, we aspire, we pontificate – and then we age, shrink, die, and vanish.” George Saunders has been called a master of the American short story and if you have not read one of his works, please treat yourself.