Auckland Writer’s Festival 2017: On Saunders, Beatty, & Writing

Last week I went to the Auckland Writer’s Festival and met some literary heroes. It was exciting and inspiring and I left wanting to go straight home and write with all the energy I’d been inspired by; instead I flew back to Wellington and had to get back to a busy week at work and I’m only just now getting a chance to sit, reflect on what I learned, and start thinking about what it means for my own writing. I wanted to chronicle a bit of the weekend here, so that I won’t forget the details that stood out to me, and to share a little of what I thought was insightful.

This will be a little messy.

Perhaps one of the central reasons why the weekend was standout for a new writer like myself was to hear from someone as talented as a man like George Saunders. Saunders is an incredible short story writer. Last year, I was introduced to a few of his stories while studying in my seminars at Edinburgh. That experience led me to seek out his writing whenever I can. I read his collection Tenth of December and fell in love. I have read his story Puppy numerous times now, and every time it moves me to tears. He is a master of precision, and reading his fiction is always an emotional joy.

His latest work is no exception, and so he came to Auckland to promote Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s a wonderful book (my thoughts on it can be found here). One of the final events I attended over the weekend was a story masterclass in which George Saunders himself would be speaking to a group of about 40 attendees about his own writing methods. Before the morning of the class, I had already seen him speak at a moderated event highlighting his newest book, and at another event where he read a portion of The Semplica Girl Diaries, a story from Tenth of December. It is immediately clear that Saunders is a writer who’s charm and insight is something he lives and practices every day. Listening to him speak, even when answering the simplest of questions, is to witness a story unfold, being both deliberate and entertaining.

And of the many things he related to us in the class, he recalled an anecdote leading up to the publishing of one of his stories in The New Yorker. He recalled that his editor, Bill Buford, continually sent him notes upon notes, until it felt like he was getting comments on whole sections of the story and Saunders’ ego became fragile. He fished for a compliment, hoping for something to help him feel better in the wake of all the requested changes. “Bill,” he asked him, “what is it that you do like about the story?” To which Bill replied, “…I read a line, and I like it enough to read the next.”

I really want to pause over that, and expand further with things Saunders spoke about that morning. It is something that is so simple and obvious a phrase that it really shouldn’t even need to be illustrated; and yet I feel it is something I take for granted, something I don’t dwell upon as a writer, and yet it is hugely, profoundly important. A story –any story – needs to demand the reader’s attention. The promise of the written piece is not fulfilled if it isn’t read. It is the writer’s responsibility to tell a story. It is a great writer who can tell a very distinct story throughout every single line.

Stories are linear endeavors; the first line needs to be read for the next to be read, and so on and so forth, until you reach the end and the story’s promise is fulfilled. Every statement in a story, especially in the beginning, is a promise of some thing that the writer is expected to fulfill. This isn’t explicit to the reader reading, but the reader knows when the story is concluded and the reader isn’t left emotionally satisfied. This happens all the time in average or bad films; and with something as big as a movie, there are many different voices and places where the story’s intent can fall apart. But in a piece of fiction, the writer has complete control, and with it, complete responsibility.

Every sentence & statement is a promise of something that is going to be followed by something else. As writers, we should be exploiting that.

I think we all have authors we hold up on a pedestal; writers we respect and oftentimes emulate. Saunders was no exception to this, and during the course of that morning he told us of his own long journey as a new writer, and recounting in a way that only Saunders can, told us of his attempts as an early writer to climb the steep slopes of Hemingway Mountain, confining himself to write like Hemingway and others so he could stand with his literary heroes; until he faced enough failure in this endeavor and, in a moment of defeat and self-pity, produced a piece of writing that honored the kind of writer he is. And he found his first small success with that, and described how he was able to, far in the distance from Hemingway Mountain, stake a claim to a tiny shitty “Saunders Hill”; though tiny, it was his own.

It illustrates one of the points he wanted to underscore at the start: that many people try to write like those they admire, but so often end up falling into a process of self-eradication. To become a writer, he said, is about elevating one’s actual self in your own writing.

Another fascinating thing that came from both his masterclass and in the previous day’s panel was his views on revision, and just how much he revises. Saunders said that for every story he writes, he tends to go through hundreds, if not thousands of drafts. In writing his novel, the level of slavish revision was less demanding, but especially in his short stories, he makes sure every single sentence is as effective as possible.

“Prod every sentence until you find the character in it,” he said. It’s brilliant, simple advice, and one I forget to follow too often.

Other little stabs of brilliance (in no particular order), but they stand out because they do:

Find what honors yourself as a writer most strongly.

Your traits as a writer can’t get out in someone else’s voice.

An ending is just stopping without sucking.

If you’re struggling with an ending, then you’re not struggling with the ending; you’re struggling with the middle.

Structure is just setting things up so you can do as a writer what you are good at.

A common mistake is to address the story too neatly.

A common mistake is to forget the expectations you yourself have created.

The day prior, he spoke about the intense divisions in America, and his insights there too were thoughtful and noteworthy. On Americans (because he was, inevitably, asked his thoughts on the current social climate of the US), he related it like this. Ask anyone who’s visited New York, and what’s a thing people say? “Oh, the people have so much energy, there’s an energy about the people there.” And there, Saunders held out his hand and cupped his fingers. “Now rotate that energy a bit, and that energy becomes aggression. Rotate it more and it becomes violence. America is a place of extremes.”

And to Saunders, he feels the writer’s responsibility is to look at those extremes and not negate one or the other, but to understand how those extremes are connected. Throughout the times I heard him speak over the weekend, he spoke a lot about finding the moral energy to every story he writes. This isn’t to say I think he is out to cast judgment with his writing, but that there is a responsibility for a writer to understand the interconnected consequences of a thing the writer is dealing with. Saunders seems a man deeply ruled by this, by a ‘moral responsibility,’ and listening to him has served as a reminder for me to look at what I write and ask myself, honestly and truly, why I am writing the stories I am writing. It’s an important thing for any writer to do.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about George Saunders, but I wanted to end at the beginning of the weekend with Paul Beatty. His book, The Sellout, won the 2016 Man Booker Prize and its win is well-deserved. It is funny, it is searing, it is quite unlike anything I have read. But among its brilliant story about racism and divisions in Los Angeles, I clung to the book in an unexpected way. It’s been seven years since I left Los Angeles. My own relationship that place is complicated, and I have never quite been able to say to someone that I was from LA and feel inside that I meant it, or believed it. But reading The Sellout, I found myself suddenly reading about place I came from, its pages filled with a social landscape I understood, while learning something new about it too. And I began to miss it in a way.

During the event, Paul Beatty talked about how it had been 30 years since he had lived in Los Angeles, a place he too was from. In a way, he said, he felt like he was writing about a place he had never been to before. And during the conversation, he mentioned other things which I have been thinking about ever since. He said a film he watches a lot is the original version of The Birth of a Nation. He talked about how there is evil in this world, but that he hates it when people try to erase traces of its existence. He feels that things need to exist, horrible texts and horrible films about horrible things, and that we can’t ignore it never happened.

Signing queues make me nervous. I line up because I genuinely admire the writer’s work. Their writing has meant something to me. I lined up for David Mitchell a few years ago at the start of my writing path, and I properly fan-boyed out. I was no less embarrassing with Saunders on Saturday. But even before I approached the signing table after Paul Beatty’s event, I knew what I was going to say. “You know, I’m from Paramount,” I’d say to him as he took my book from me to sign. “It’s been a while since I’ve lived there now too.” And that’s exactly how I opened, and he put the book down and said:

“No kidding. What the heck you doing out here?”

And we had a conversation. I told him briefly what I was doing in New Zealand and he asked me about the color of the street signs in Paramount. He asked me where I went to college and then told me about his first encounter with East-Coasters unused to the idea of a black man from Beachside California. I told him how much his book had meant to me; reading it for me is almost like looking at an old photograph of a place I’m from. I joked with him about his “Too Many Mexicans” chapter, and he apologized for doing that. I told him not to, I told him I loved it. He signed my book, and reached out his hand, and I shook it. We looked each other in the eye, and I thanked him for today. Even as I write it now, that moment means a lot to me, and I can’t place my finger on why.

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