“When I was asked to introduce George I said yes immediately,” began Professor of English Amitava Kumar, speaking of writer George Saunders with familiarity. And rightly so: The two went to graduate school together. “I thought this would be a good opportunity to tell the person who borrowed my copy of ‘Tenth of December’ to return it to me. Do it; do the right thing,” Kumar joked.
Since no one came forward with Kumar’s book—a hardcopy no less—he continued with his introduction of Saunders, this year’s Alex Krieger Memorial Lecture. The annual talk honors the memory of Krieger ’95 who died in a car accident the second semester of his freshman year.
On April 14 at 8 p.m., Saunders joined a prestigious cohort of humor writers ranging from David Sedaris to Ira Glass and last year’s Gary Shteyngart to deliver the talk.
“The last thing I taught of George’s was in my 9/11 class, a short story called ‘Home,’” Kumar recalled. “But the one marvelous piece of writing I try to teach in every class is called ‘Chicago Christmas, 1984.’ It’s about a man who got cheated out of Christmas, but it’s also tremendously funny,” he said, hitting on Saunder’s ability to mingle the tragedies of the human experience with humor.
“‘Having courted and won a girl I had courted but never come close to winning in high school, I was now losing her via my pathetically dwindling prospects. One night she said, ‘I’m not saying I’m great or anything, but still I think I deserve better than this,’” read Kumar from the piece. He admitted, “I read that line and it struck an echo in my heart.”
Saunders told the audience, with tongue in cheek, “Before we get to the humor, I want to start with a serious piece about a poetic form.” Saunders dove into an exploration of the haiku. As compared to more difficult poems like the villanelle, he said, “The haiku by contrast just needs a frog: Frog croaks in the marsh. I run wildly in the marsh. Frog gives me this look,” read Saunders. Saunders read another haiku, noting that it’s typical of the form to include observations of nature: “I observe nature. I closely observer nature. Wow—it is boring.”
After reading a few more experimental haikus, Saunders broke character, stating, “That’s one form of humor: light, cheap, satirizing the haiku—that’s low-hanging fruit.”
Though Saunders is widely recognized for his masterful writing, receiving accolades for his accomplishments including the MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, like many just starting out, he struggled at first. Saunders said he never considered himself a humor writer until 1989. “Before that I had this kind of medical condition called the ‘Hemingway boner,” said Saunders. “I had the idea that what an artist did, what a writer did, was find a hero, study them closely and try to do the same thing. In Hemingway’s case I thought the job might be to know the effect I’m going to have on the reader and then trick the reader.”
Saunders found the first opportunity to implement this approach when he and his wife got invited to a wedding in Mexico. He remembered meeting an assortment of characters and taking detailed notes on all of their experiences while on the trip. He had told his wife, Paula Saunders, “We’re sitting on a gold mine.”
In a fit of creative energy, Saunders wrote a 700-page novel over the course of a year. But when he gave it to Paula, a writer herself, Saunders realized his lengthy work was a dud. “I know if she likes it, I’m good. If she doesn’t, I’ve got work to do. She had maybe gotten to page six and she was sitting like this—” Saunders put his head in his hands. “It was a train wreck because I was still using the Hemingway fixation.”
Later when, during the question-and-answer session, a student asked how Saunders came to trust the criticisms of readers and editors, he drew on advice he gives his students at Syracuse University. “I tell them that when someone makes a comment and you say, ‘That’s crazy!’ you should throw that away,” explained Saunders, “But if someone says something and you say, ‘Thank God!’ and it feels like it came from you, keep that. I’ve always felt that way with my wife.”
Saunders said that he realized the problems in the early stages of his writing stemmed from his belief that artists needed to keep their real selves out of their art. “[I thought] you had to be a better, bigger, smarter person than you actual were…In my case it meant sort of trying to fight back against my fast-talking nature and that I had to leave out pop culture references because Hemingway never had any Walmarts in his writing,” he said.
Debbie Altman ’16 thought this insight was key as she thought back to times she aspired to imitating a particular writer whom she admires. “I’ve been told over and over again to find my own voice and write with my own style but I still find myself looking to my favorite authors as inspiration. I appreciate Saunders making it clear that holding yourself to those standards doesn’t help you develop your own voice; it smothers it,” she said.
Later, Saunders realized he had a hit on his hands when he heard Paula genuinely laughing at something he had written. “Humor, frankness, self-effacing energy—as soon as I dropped that scrim I knew what I was doing. Humor is just telling the truth a little quicker and more rudely than you usually would.” It was then that Saunders found his voice.
After 9/11, Saunders wrote many humor pieces with political agendas, fashioning villains and enemies to push up against. Fiction, on the other hand, allowed Saunders to be more generous to his characters and imbue them with humanity.
But much of Saunders’ writing style came from an unlikely place. Working as a tech writer for seven years to pay the bills and support his family, Saunders found an approach to prose that still proves useful. “There was no patience for adjectives,” said Saunders. “I learned you could create beauty through an accumulation of short sentences.”
Though Saunders had found his stride, revising is a part of the writing process that can remain daunting. Nonetheless, Saunders has developed a simple strategy: Just read the first sentence. “You’ll have an immediate reaction to it,” he said. “Keep a needle in your head that’s just ‘positive’ and ‘negative.’”
David Finger ’15 said he found this advice helpful. “I don’t write creatively, but, having just turned in a thesis, I found a lot of what he said about not trying to solve a problem head-on to be applicable. Likewise, I liked what he had to say about easing into the process of rereading your own work and making it better,” wrote Finger in an emailed statement.
When re-reading your writing, Saunders said, eventually the writing will talk back. “The story will start talking to you: ‘I’m boring!’ A good writer will say, ‘Can I help you? You suck.’”
Most, importantly, Saunders said that over his career, he’s learned that there is no one way to be a writer, no one lifestyle a writer need have and no environment that can’t be a creative one.
Said Saunders, “It would be weird if you got a group of 20 people together and no literature came out of it. Wherever there’s human desire and suffering there will be literature.”