My Writing Education: A Time Line – The New Yorker

George Saunders is a gem.

There’s this theory that self-esteem has to do with getting confirmation from the outside world that our perceptions are fundamentally accurate. What Doug does at this meeting is increase my self-esteem by confirming that my perception of the work I’d been doing is fundamentally accurate. The work I’ve been doing is bad. Or, worse: it’s blah. This is uplifting–liberating, even—to have my unspoken opinion of my work confirmed. I don’t have to pretend bad is good. This frees me to leave it behind and move on and try to do something better.

My Writing Education: A Time Line – The New Yorker

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

I think we have to be frugal with our photo-viewing. I love it when you find a photo from a time you’ve forgotten about – one that, maybe, someone else had possession of. It makes you realise how linear and reductive memory is.

Whenever we invent something new, our neuroses rush over there and get writ large.

George Saunders. And further in his LARB interview:

A definition of parenting: “That state in which, because of the existence of great love, an individual feels that he or she has failed, or is failing, or will soon fail.”

Paris Review – CivilWarLand in Bad Decline: Preface, George Saunders

When I was in my twenties I had this plan to go to El Salvador and write about the experience. I had no money, didn’t speak Spanish, but this was “my dream.” I stopped by one day to see a friend of mine but found only his father home. I’d never spoken to this man before, not really. He was a truck driver, a father of eight, always went around in a white T-shirt and a pair of Buddy Holly glasses. But this day, we talked. I told him about my El Salvador plan, expecting him to find it indulgent. But instead he said, “You know what? You have to do it.”

“Yes,” I said, with the force of revelation. “I do. I really do.”

“And you know why?” he said. “Because you know who you’re going to blame if you don’t?”

I did know.

“Myself,” I said with a knowing smile.

“Bullshit,” he said. “You’ll blame your wife and  kids.”

I often thought of this conversation when I was stealing time from Radian to write this book. If I didn’t, I told myself, I was going to become a bitter old-fart version of myself, blaming Paula and the girls.

So I stole like a mother. I wrote in the bathroom, I printed using the company printer, I turned away from my Kodak report to jot things down, I edited while waiting for an offsite groundwater remediation system to purge, I sometimes blew off a full afternoon when I was feeling ripe, although usually, when that happened, I’d take work home, just to be fair.

(Cf. Amy Poehler.)

It’s been a few years since I’ve read any Saunders, but I’m really excited about his new book.

Paris Review – CivilWarLand in Bad Decline: Preface, George Saunders

I’m not very interested in political satire because it works on the assumption that They Are Assholes. Fiction works on the assumption that They Are Us, on a Different Day.

George Saunders. Re-tumbling this part of a really good interview because it’s an election year. Just doing my part for America.

TMR: An Interview with George Saunders


George Saunders in a wonderful, wonderful interview.

Success is nice because then you don’t have to worry so much about having been unfairly robbed of your very richly deserved success. Success is bad because momentary good fortune can temporarily hide the fact that you are still, despite your success, full of shit.

So much good stuff here:

Interviewer: So much of your fiction is charged with social import. Given our recent political upheavals, have you ever thought of writing overt political satire?

Saunders: I’m not very interested in that kind of satire because it works on the assumption that They Are Assholes. Fiction works on the assumption that They Are Us, on a Different Day.


Any mastery you can achieve in writing is totally personal and incredibly nuanced. It’s a sort of antimastery, feeling comfortable with being unsure.

And also:

One of the wonderful benefits of energetically pursuing a writing career is that I’ve come to understand the staggering limitations of my abilities. […] So one way I cope with this humbling state of affairs is via a little mantra: If I just stay fully engaged in whatever has presented itself, things will be fine. That is, I try not to think about things like: Next, I begin MY NOVEL!

TMR: An Interview with George Saunders

The Braindead Megaphone (review: 4.5/5)

There’s potential for a doctoral dissertation about The Rhetorical Use of Capital Letters in the Writing Of George Saunders. The usage comes in a couple flavors. There are the ineffable concepts, like Freedom and Humility. There’s the personalization of general categories, like Writers and the Little Guy. There’s the tongue-in-cheek categorization of human sub-groups, like, oh, People Who Analyze Capitalization. And it also appears when it’s simply more amusing, e.g. “Oversize Bright-Colored Toy Ships and Trucks.”
This was only my second try at Saunders. I aborted my attempt of In Persuasion Nation. Maybe it’s good. (I think I read so much non-fiction that I have trouble turning the switch every now and then.) And it wasn’t funny. But The Braindead Megaphone is funny. And it stays funny even though he writes about Serious Things and has a really earnest style.

To wander my way back to the Capitalization Issue, it reminds me of what Daniel Day Lewis said in a recent interview: “Perhaps I’m particularly serious because I’m not unaware of the potential absurdity of what I’m doing.” I think satirists like Saunders might agree. While the writing isn’t always serious, it is sincere, and I get the sense that he really kicks his own ass to come up with this stuff. Most of it is really, really good.

As for the meat of the book, the titular essay is a brilliant take on banal popular media. What’s really wonderful is the way he hedges and offers concessions along the way through his thought experiments. What could be a canned, all-too-familiar diatribe becomes a nice little Journey with George.

Another essay that I liked was about Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse-Five. In one part he talks about how Vonnegut gives up on detail:

“Vonnegut was skipping the lush physical details he had presumably put himself into so much danger to obtain. He was assuming these physical details; that is, he was assuming that I was supplying them. A forest was a forest, he seemed to be saying, let’s not get all flaky about it. He did not seem to believe, as I had read Tolstoy did, that his purpose as a writer was to use words to replicate his experience, to make you feel and think and see what he had felt. This book was not a recounting of Vonnegut’s actual war experience, but a usage of it.”

Later, in an essay on Barthelme‘s short story, “The School,” Saunders offers his own thoughts on the writer-reader relationship:

“The writer is right there with us—he knows where we are, and who we are, and is involved in an intimate and respectful game with us. I think of this as the motorcycle-sidecar model of reading: writer and reader right next to one another, leaning as they corner, the pleasure coming from the mutuality and simultaneity of the experience.”

In addition to those gems, there’s some great writing on patriotism in a mock-academic “survey of the literature”; a welcome twist on the tired Letters To & From An Advice Columnist genre; reporting on Minutemen and border patrol; and probably my favorite of a bunch, an awesome essay on what’s so difficult and wonderful about Huckleberry Finn. The only real duds for me were the foreign reporting essays in Dubai and in Tibet. Skip those, and read everything else.