Writer-in-residence George Saunders reflects on career

Now an acclaimed author, professor of creative writing, and recent recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, Saunders spoke of his life as a writer and the writing process at a talk in Swift Hall Wednesday.

By Ella Christoph

George Saunders knows all about failure. But three failed novels didn’t keep Saunders from writing.

Now an acclaimed author, professor of creative writing, and recent recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, Saunders spoke of his life as a writer and the writing process at a talk in Swift Hall Wednesday.

Drawing on his own struggles with early writing projects, Saunders encouraged the aspiring writers in the audience to never stop writing.

“You’re like, ‘Oh, if I blow this, I suck. And if I suck, I can’t be a writer,'” he said. “The idea that there is some point that you can justify to quit is wrong.”

Saunders’s most recent book, The Braindead Megaphone, is a collection of nonfiction short stories. He is currently the University’s 2008 Kestnbaum Family Writer-in-Residence, a position sponsored by the Committee on Creative Writing. In previous years, the the Committee hosted writers Lydia Davis, Zadie Smith, and Art Spiegelman.

Before becoming an author, Saunders worked for an environmental engineering firm and an oil exploration crew.

“I’ve done a lot of things not by design, but kind of by ineptitude,” he said.

Raised on the South Side of Chicago, Saunders received a B.S. in geophysical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines before going on to earn his master’s in creative writing at Syracuse University, where he is currently on the faculty of the Master of Fine Arts program. Saunders works with three other faculty members and the 19 master’s students who are part of Syracuse University’s creative writing program. He pushes his students to delve into situations they often do not want to confront.

“When the story starts getting red hot, you find these avoidance moments,” he said.

In his own writing, Saunders said he has returned to writing fiction, attributing his foray into nonfiction to a midlife crisis. He was motivated to explore other mediums by the hope of reaching a broader audience.

“Is there something defective in me that I can’t get normal people to read my stuff?” he said.

He has written three books of short stories, a children’s book, a novella-length fable, and a number of pieces for The New Yorker and GQ. He has also appeared on The Colbert Report, and Ben Stiller purchased the film rights to his book CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.

Burgeoning writers in the crowd also took home some pointers for their own work. Saunders said he recommends paring down manuscripts, adding that he will often writes six or seven polished drafts of an ending before settling on one.

“Stories are increasingly becoming like little puzzles you work out for yourself,” he said. “There’s a kind of radically scary truth. All the time we spend [reading and analyzing literature], at the moment of writing, that can really trip you up.”

He said that the process of revision is essential and said that a first draft is never indicative of a writer’s ability.

Hemingway’s writings informed Saunders’s early literary interests. He referred to his early writing as “Hemingway imitations of me—Hemingway in Texas.”

In his youth, Saunders said, he focused too much on the conceptual aspect of writing by picking apart the writing of the authors he admires and attempting to transplant their voice into his own writing.

“I would write these stories that were kind of like Somerset Maugham on quaaludes,” he said.

“I was really trying to mimic my hero,” Saunders said of Hemingway. “At a certain point, the analysis is not the production.” After years of refusing to read current writers, he read Stuart Dybek, who writes short stories that are often set in Chicago and was inspired to find his own contemporary voice.

As a young man, Saunders was inspired to pursue higher education by the books of objectivist Ayn Rand, who espoused laissez-faire capitalism.

“I read Atlas Shrugged, and that is really why I went to college,” he said.

But after working for corporations and witnessing worker abuse firsthand, Saunders’s political stance turned liberal. His writing often addresses issues of consumerism and capitalism, but he said he avoids focusing on that while he writes in order to avoid being condescending.

“I think any kind of agenda in a story, which of course we all have, has to be examined all the time,” he said.

But despite all the theory and analysis, Saunders said that becoming a good writer ultimately requires actually putting that knowledge into practice and recommended writing for as little as 20 minutes a day.

“We just talked about stories for three hours. Let’s remember that that has very little to do with writing one,” he said.