George Saunders on Writing

I might be overly concerned with my writing style, but every time I finish a piece, I’m disheartened at how “mechanical” it sounds. It’s as if I’m stacking LEGO blocks from different LEGO sets on top of one another, creating a recognizable but oddly proportioned figure. Part of the problem, I think, stems from the fact that I teach writing to junior high and high school students–i.e., I spend most of my time teaching writing formulas and structures so that students can work on plugging in the right information in the right places.

The result: I sometimes impose an artificial structure onto my ideas, instead of allowing the ideas to take shape naturally on the page. Structure can’t be abandoned entirely, but I can’t be authoritarian about it either.

The folks at the Literary Hub recently interviewed George Saunders about some of the best writing advice he’s received. The following excerpt got right to the heart of my own writer-ly insecurities. It also reminded me of Alan Jacobs’ dictum, “Read at Whim!”

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Once, when I was a student, I cornered my mentor and hero Tobias Wolff at a party and assured him that I had sworn off comedic sci-fi and was now writing “real literature.” I think he sensed, correctly, that 1) this was not an attitude that was going to produce my best work but 2) there was going to be no arguing me off of that position (only time could do that). So he just said, “Well, good. Just don’t lose the magic.”

Which I then proceeded to go off and do, for about four years. The “advice” part of that came home on the day I made the breakthrough that would lead to my first book—that is, when the magic (finally) came back. The new writing was fun and (see above) ostensibly entertaining—it came out of a place of joy and orneriness, instead of a place of stiffness or control or pedanticism. And to suddenly recall his advice at just that moment was a sort of force-accelerator, and I’ve never forgotten that, for me, “magic” has to be the operative word—getting the prose to go somewhere and do something you couldn’t have foreseen at the outset.
I saw that this distinction I’d been making between “entertainment” and “literature” was not meaningful, not at the highest levels.

So, this principle of proceeding not by head (ideas, concepts, plans) buy by heart (moving ahead line-by-line, trusting my ear, trying to communicate with and entertain an imaginary reader, being ok with being lost and even seeing this as an indicator that the story wants to be more than I have in mind for it) has stayed with me and has led me to think that, when self recedes, there is something else that rushes in to replace it, and that thing is smarter and kinder and just more trustworthy than self, i.e., the self we create through control and rumination.