On Bowling Pins and Keeping One’s Head Out of One’s Ass: An Evening with George Saunders

Thomas Waddill-

Upon learning that I’ve been invited to a Q&A session with Conarroe Lecturer George Saunders, my roommate Matt alerts me to a line that Saunders wrote in his 2015 New Yorker article, “My Writing Education: A Time Line,” in which Saunders tells us that, in 1986, “Doug [Unger] gives me the single greatest bit of advice on writing dialogue I have ever heard. And no, I am not going to share it here. It is that good, yes.” Matt tells me that I have to ask about that line, to see maybe if his resolve has since softened. Of course I will, I say. And I assure Matt that I won’t just ask; I’ll pry. It’ll be persistent. It will throw him off, I think, this hyper-specific question about this nugget of arcane Ungerian craft-knowledge; when I ask it, he’ll think, “Wow, this student is a Deep Reader, and is committed to the Craft, and reads the New Yorker, and he is well-dressed, too. Great question. Bravo, young man! Let us discourse!” And everyone else will think that, too. I’ll be the star of the evening.

Monday, February 12th arrives. My friend Henry and I are the first people to come to the Alumni House sunroom. We get seats in the front row, but not in the center, because that would be “too much,” we decide. We’re on the edge. Everyone else files in with brownies and basil lemonade. The rows of seats are bowed and the two armchairs tilted inward, so Henry and I get a profile of Dr. Saunders and a full view of Professor Parker. The latter does not begin with his own questions; he immediately opens the floor. I snag the first question. Here goes: “In your New Yorker article, blah blah, Unger, dialogue, blah,” I ask. He chuckles and answers without hesitation; he says that Doug said that dialogue shouldn’t be realistic, should be “charming, beautiful, and propulsive,” and should not directly correspond so that the fictive world is expanded. Next question.

The author, Thomas Waddill ‘19, is pictured on the far right of the first row of students speaking to George Saunders. Photo courtesy of Chris Record

There you go, Tom. You…did it?

The questions go on. I don’t say anything else for the entire session. Saunders is enormously generous and attentive; he begins every response with an earnest “Great question,” no matter the level of specificity or demonstrated knowledge about his work/life (not that there were any less-than-stellar questions). I had come with many hyper-specific questions about his work and how he viewed his literary inheritance, the crème-de-la-crème of these being one about how critic Adam Kelly in a truly splendid Post-45 paper taxonomizes Saunders as a part of a post-Wallace group of New Sincerity post-post-modernists who blah blah, blah, blah blah blah and where do you see yourself in such a critical framework, Mr. Saunders? That question and others were shelved. More and more, I was drawn, almost spiritually, to the act of listening; listening to other peoples’ questions, to his gracious responses, to the gentle, reassuring buzz of the air conditioning in the interstices.

It has been said so much that the maxim is unattributable; the best writers show rather than tell. Saunders, in his gentle grace (unbeknownst to him), was showing me, subtly, that my armful of questions maybe wasn’t hauled in in the most generous spirit; that perhaps I wanted to fire these off for some other reason than genuine curiosity; that, perhaps, there was another question under all of those that I didn’t know I wanted to ask but was answered anyway; that is, a question about whether it’s possible that being a better human being might be directly related to being a better fiction writer, and vice-versa. The answer he was showing me with each of his responses was: yes. And so I was quiet, and I listened, and this unspoken question was answered again and again and again. I had been reading his fiction for nearly five years, but it didn’t truly click until this evening; be kind to people; be kind to your characters; listen; love.

Here are some notable quotations from the session:

“Carve beautiful bowling pins and throw them in the air. The story is you catching them on the way down.”

“Get good at knowing what thrills you, and allow yourself in one part of your life to constantly indulge that.”

“If you eat beans, it’s not your fault that you get farty.”

“I find that I always try to approach a story from honesty and kindness and beauty. If politics come in, then that way they’ll come in more honestly, and more beautifully.”

And, finally: “How do I stay humble? Well, I’m married. [Laughs.] Before I left, Paula told me, ‘Two things: stay hydrated and don’t come home with your head up your ass.’”

Later, when Matt asks me about the Unger advice, I tell him I have it written down somewhere, but I admit that I can’t really remember what it was.

*      *      *

What do you think of when you think of a Writer? Yes: capital W, full-blown, is-somehow-different-than-all-of-us Writer; a Writer who communes with her or his own personal Muse, a Writer stooped over a salvaged typewriter, a writer who smokes in the early morning in a room crammed with hardcover books? Some time in the 20th century, the writer became mythologized into the Writer. When we hear the word now, we might think of a cantankerous Hemingway, an anguished Plath, or a bohemian Thompson. Saunders’ lecture on Monday was an assault on our mythic notions of the Writer.

Saunders was born in Texas and grew up on the south side of Chicago; he described his background during his lecture as working-class. After he got a degree in geophysical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines, he took a job in Sumatra, Indonesia. At some point, he decided to skinny-dip in a Sumatran river. He looked up to see a couple hundred monkeys pooping into the water off of an oil pipe. He got sick, he told us, for about three years.

During this period, he moved back to Texas. In 1986, he was working hotel maintenance and playing in an Amarillo Americana band when Tobias Wolff called him to tell him that he’d been accepted into the MFA program at Syracuse. Although his first book won’t come out for another decade, during which he said in his lecture that he wrote a “terrible, 700-page book called La Boda de Eduardo,” it is during his time at Syracuse that he overhears Wolff call his son “dear” over the phone. He describes this moment in that New Yorker article as one of almost revelatory significance:

“All kinds of windows fly open in my mind. It is powerful to call your son “dear,” it is powerful to feel that the world is dear, it is powerful to always strive to see everything as dear. Toby is a powerful man: in his physicality, in his experiences, in his charisma. But all that power has culminated in gentleness. It is as if that is the point of power: to allow one to access the higher registers of gentleness.”

And it is this gentleness that seems a crucial constituent of Saunders’ authorial process; if this moment of overhearing Wolff could be said to have influenced Saunders’ own predilection for kindness, even in the slightest way, then we can understand it as influencing his writing. The evening made it clear that the two are very much intertwined.        

I wonder if a Writer like Hemingway ever called another man “dear.”

*      *      *        

George Saunders met with students in the Alumni House Sunroom
Photo courtesy of Chris Record

It isn’t until 1990 that, beaten down by the banal demands of a job tech writing for a pharmaceutical company, Saunders finally rediscovers a style that caught Wolff’s eye in 1986 and would come to define his work: a riveting blend of the comic, the tragic, and the absurd that coheres into moving and troubling portraits of working-class characters whom a post-capitalist, consumerist society threatens to crush. He writes the first story of his gorgeous and funny 1996 collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, which is a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Pastoralia comes out in 2000, In Persuasion Nation in 2006, and Tenth of December in 2013. Last year saw the release of his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize.

Introducing Saunders, Joel Conarroe described Lincoln in the Bardo as full of “language – music – that you want to read out loud to someone you love.” When Saunders finished the lecture and the Duke Family Performance Hall, someone asked: “Why Lincoln?”

He said that he did it because the image of Lincoln so grief-stricken that he would enter the crypt to hold his son’s body had stuck with him for nearly 20 years; ultimately, the emotive weight of this vision became so massive for him that it was intimidating. He wrote Lincoln in the Bardo because it was a challenge he had to take, to stave off the “career death-spiral of self-imitation,” as he put it. It’s a novel of immense depth, humor, and pathos.

“I’m glad I did it,” he said.

So are we.

Thomas Waddill ‘19 is an English major from Beaumont, TX. He can be reached for comment at thwaddill@davidson.edu