Wednesday, February 13, 2013

George Saunders in Portland at Powell's

George Saunders, American short-story writer, speaks much like he writes. Witty, off-the-cuff, disarming. He read to an SRO crowd at Powell's City of Books (2/8) after racing to the downtown venue straight from the airport. Reading from his new book, Tenth of December, he immediately bonded with those lucky enough to get a seat. He said he wouldn't read too long because "who leaves a reading feeling like they wanted to hear more?" I think this group would have stayed another hour. A friend and I waited about an hour to see him, and he wasn't a disappointment. A line of people were kept downstairs because the room was full. Not surprisingly, he appreciates Portland for it.

He's steamrolling. The New York Times loves him. I heard why. He is true to his voice. And humor is no easy genre to write. He says he wasn't always a humorist. He spent his initial years writing in ardor of Hemingway. Sound familiar? Saunders wrote a book in some exotic Asian country working a grub-stake while his co-workers drank away their idle time. He says it wasn't until later that he decided he'd better lighten his work up, and he moved his plots into amusement parks and odd situations. "You have native charms," he says. "A lot of writers don't trust the things they are best at."

He described the struggle of making it. He wrote a 700-page novel (too long; been there?) while working as a technical writer (writing while on the job), spent a year and a half on the draft, only to have his wife immediately proclaim it a piece of sh*t (my word, not his). He jokes it had no nouns. He doesn't write novels now and doesn't believe the novel is supreme. But he reveres those who can write them.

He teaches in the MFA program at Syracuse and dispelled a couple of myths about needing an MFA in Creative Writing. False, he says, that you must have an MFA to be a writer. False, also, to think that if you get an MFA, you are automatically a writer. This year, approximately 566 students applied to the MFA program at Syracuse. For six spots. Six. He says he worries about students 7 through 100, and beyond, because rejection plays such a big part in a writer's ability to move forward.

Another word about his wife. She is his first reader. They've raised kids together (two grown daughters whom he never tries to use as characters in his books). He made a touching comment about the support his wife has provided over the years and the surprises of "monogamy, faith and trust." He seeks her opinion first. In might be simple feedback, a word or two scrawled across a draft: Tears. What could be better than that?


  1. well the obvious here is that OF COURSE you don't need an MFA to "be a writer." An MFA though is handy to be a writing instructor, and so tight control on admissions. Hurts to glut the market.

    But all "fields" of expertise, all clubs, have gatekeepers. This is called "publishing" and "academia."

    Books and life--all you need. And of course, ego enough to believe you have something to say that people should hear.

    Lincoln, one of the greatest writers of this country read, other than law, two books, and one supposes these are a kind of law too--The Bible and Shakespeare. And then he wrote with a purpose.

    I like the assertion of "native charms" very much.

    1. As for Saunder's reverence his wife and DH Lawrence's take on Ishmael's relationship with Queequeg in Moby Dick, obviously time changes everything. DHL wasn't thinking that the "wives" were looking back on their partners and doing the same, yet women had no political voice or frame of reference. Today, we each use up others, be it man-to-man, woman-to-woman, or any manner of relationship. DH would be interested to see how times have changed.

    2. I think you may change this tune a bit after listening to the whitman chapter I'm posting right now.

  2. Even with an advanced degree, there's no guarantee of a writer's quality of life. Many writers have to teach to pay the bills, or do other things, because there are few who can make it on a writing-life income. One must have incredible perseverance, depth of talent or luck. Usually, all three. So an MFA may make sense to eat bread and butter. For non-fiction, expertise in a subject area other than English/Lit is important. But in literature, it won't make your work any more or less marketable.

    Your blog is an MFA course.

    1. I think, on the most basic level, you just have to keep chuggin'. That's all. I won't say I don't want to "make something" of the relationship between me and "the world," but, I have begun to simply write to my children, and record to my children and let the rest be the just the rest.


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