Seeing George Saunders

George Saunders is like the Jack White of short story authors. Maybe even of writers in general; he is a rock star. He teaches in the MFA program at Syracuse, and he recently published Tenth of December, which has been widely hailed etc, etc. He came to Northwestern last week for a reading and two different Q&A sessions, one about writing and one about the value of higher education.

He was funny, utterly gracious and charming, summarily the best. Here's a clip of him talking in lieu of having any footage of when I actually saw him:

Some of my favorite things he said, in response to various questions, was one: I'm a fiction author so I don't have to think so thoroughly about things, which is nice. (That's not verbatim, but it's the gist.) It was in comparison to being a philosopher, a theologian, or something like that.

Another: "At each stage of your education, you're liberated of your own nonsense." I like how he said nonsense instead of bullshit, which is the word I would use since I'm not entirely out of my gratuitous-swearing phase. He didn't mean something as hard-line as bullshit. We build our understanding of the world and of ourselves around us, and much of it is nonsense. He talked about how education can be what helps us push open our understanding, letting ourselves out and other things in.

He also talked about how, with writing, he has thought, "Anybody helping me... no? Everybody want me to quit...yes?" I feel like I'm running into that first part. The idea that maybe if I hang out long enough in front of my computer, somebody will do the hard parts for me, has been hard to shake. Because being in the presence of a great writer like George Saunders, even being best friends with him, won't make writing any more easy. At some point, nobody can really help you write.

My last thought on the experience is that it was a little disappointing. He couldn't have been a better person to listen to, and he answered questions well and was funny and seemed to genuinely care about students. He was great, but his writing is so much better. Having read Tenth of December meant that I spent time, thought, and emotions on something that he created (and spent lots of time, thought, and emotions on) - I was so affected by the story "Victor Lap" that it took most of a car ride to Milwaukee for Mitch to talk me down from it. I was surprised that meeting him didn't inspire the same deal of connection that I felt with his book. I guess that's how it goes.

Read Tenth of December, though. And meet him, anyway, if you have the chance.

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