In George Saunders’ most recent short story, “The daring action mom, ”Which appeared in the New Yorker in august, a woman whose son has been the victim of a random stroke sits down to write an essay titled “Justice.” “It was easy,” reports the narrator. “It just sank.” The next morning, she finds her husband Keith reading the essay. Then he says he’s going to run. The mother concludes that “this is what the good writing did … you said what you really thought and it made a kind of energy.” But it turns out that Keith didn’t go for a run. Inspired by his controversy, he went to bring the culprit to his knees. Except he’s got the wrong man.
When I spoke to Saunders recently, on the phone from Santa Cruz, Calif., He said the mother’s feeling about the handwriting was “really true, I think.” But, he added, “I think she’s not a very good writer. Or she was writing this piece out of too much emotion. And… You know, she didn’t turn back to look at him. When the mother rereads the essay, she reflects: “yes, it sort of sank, but when you really broke it…” So the story is, among other things, a parable about the dangers of the first draft. – and, by implication, the painful need for revision.
“The mother of daring action” marks a springboard between two projects more openly concerned with questions of craftsmanship: Saunders’ book study on Russian news, A swim in the pond in the rain, released in January, and its Substack newsletter, Story Club, which comes out today December 2 (its 63e birthday). Sounds like an offering not to be missed – serial reflections on the method of a fiction writer who must be counted among the most respected in the world of English reading, and the winner of the PEN / Malamud Award for the excellence of the short story, the Folio Prize for its most recent collection, December ten, and the Booker Prize for his only novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.
[see also: “Our sense of who we are is constantly shifting”: novelist Katie Kitamura on Agatha Christie and being a reluctant critic]
Saunders said that when he started as a professor of creative writing at Syracuse University in the late 1990s, he realized that all he had to offer “is that of somehow i worked with my particular mind and learned how to start with something and revise it until it was publishable, and i’m just going to be real honest about how i do it, including the way I read Russian stories for profit. I figured this out in the first two weeks. The next 20 years have been kind of a process of saying, “How honest can I be? Is there a way to teach a Chekhov story by recreating my line? And it turned out there was. Her role as an instructor, he said, is “to midwife and facilitate rather than dance”. He hopes to recreate the “ambiance” of his Syracuse workshops on Story Club.
At this point, after 35 years and nearly 50 published papers, Saunders said he could tell almost immediately if an idea was worth pursuing. “If this thing has come to me, out of the cosmos, out of my subconscious, and I can get a little bit of charm, a page or something like that to work, then I just make a contract with that: ‘I agree to you 100 percent, and your role is to gradually reveal why you are making so much fuss. The point, basically, is to “remember why people would come to read this through you.” He said it can be disheartening to realize that “your aesthetic approach at this point is the omission of a description of a river,” but if you “refuse to do the things you only do so much. though badly, “your unique voice – in his case, wacky and meditative, shameless and open-hearted – begins to emerge.
And yet, despite this confidence in what he strives for, Saunders still regularly asks himself the question, “Why am I so inept?” His work in progress was recently rejected by the New Yorker for the second time – “and I still can’t figure it out”. Saunders agrees that he “can talk about a lot of things, be the ‘review guru’,” but the process is “too much for anyone to control. I can get to a point where I am absolutely positive, based on my years of experience and years of excellence shtick, that I’ve revised something perfectly, and then the world will say, ‘You didn’t. But in this I find that if there is a mastery, it is knowing that you are still going to get your ass kicked very soon. My constant desire to see myself as a “really good writer”, for sure, is still being undermined.
Saunders thinks it reassures future practitioners that a published writer who is also a professor acknowledges that the practice “is exceedingly difficult for reasons that we cannot quite comprehend.” But he has some sort of theory. “We are in this intimate tennis game, the reader and the writer. And if I’m only using a limited part of myself, on the other end you’ll feel like I’m holding something back. So you could say that the crafting process involves a person trying to figure out how to sit down to the table, which is more difficult than it looks. Because you have to get your subconscious, but also your organizing self and your intellectual self. You get your ass kicked until you’ve put everything on the table.
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It turns out that there is a potential shortcut: the analysis of past masters. Writing “A Mom of Bold Action,” for example, was “oddly straightforward. The things that would normally take months of reviewing to find just appeared in front of me. I have a feeling it has to do with the writing of the Russian book. Working on it for two years kind of released something in my understanding of the stories, and when I finished it they kind of took over me. Then he added, with extreme understatement, “So I’m kind of interested in continuing this practice. “
[see also: Bernard Cornwell: “I always had the insane ambition to be a novelist”]