Saturday, 1 June 2013

George Saunders on writing short stories

Tenth of December?

In 2013 George Saunders appeared in Time Magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. This is very good news for the short story – a sign that the form’s  “ebb-tide” has surely become a “flood-tide”, as one of the Frank O’Connor Award judges put it – and has made Saunders into something of a totem amongst short story writers.

I saw him in conversation with the writer Jon McGregor at Southbank, London last week. He was generous and funny as he discussed his writing methods, inspiration and how his writing has changed, spending some time picking apart in detail how he wrote the first story in Tenth of December, ‘Victory Lap’.

This story had started out as an attempt to shake off his reputation as a dark writer; Saunders admires Chekov, who he suggested can make a story out of anything, with no need for darkness, or drama, just humanity. So, he began by trying to get into the head of a fifteen year old girl who believes people are good and life is fun, and waited to see where the story would go. I won’t spoil it by revealing what happens in ‘Victory Lap’ but suffice to say that even with a relatively happy ending it does not avoid darkness by any means. Saunders described the various realisations he had throughout the writing of it about what he had to do – adding narrative voices, finally seeing how it must end – not having started with any such plans. He quoted Einstein, saying “no worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception,” and if a story has its own life, then its solution ought to surprise the writer. You can get to the solution, but you must let your subconscious do the heavy lifting.

Threaded throughout the discussion were other tips drawn from his own writing process and his teaching at Syracuse University. When working on a story, he said, you should “honour your own discontent”. This particularly struck a chord with me, struggling as I often do to balance positive feedback with my own misgivings about a piece of work, or negative feedback with my sense that a story does what I want it to. Keep changing tiny details, he suggested, repeat, even giving scores out of ten to each bit. Imagine someone asking, “Tell it to me simply,” to get at what the story is really about. Cut out bits where you are just being clever. When you do this, he said, “the velocity goes up, the intimacy with the reader goes up.” There’s nothing that’s the wrong thing to do, as long as it brings the reader in a bit more.

I was relieved to hear that he tends to have four or five stories on the go at any one time, and when he sits down to write, decides to work on whichever is going to be the most fun that day. I also do this, and sometimes worry that it’s a way of avoiding committing to a story...

When I asked whether he enjoyed ambiguity in short stories – something I love – he said he thinks that is what a short story is, and that “fiction can’t answer the question but can formulate it correctly.” This is an intriguing way to think about short stories, and one that appeals to me as a reader who does not like to have too many questions answered in fiction. Next time somebody asks me, of a story, “but what does it mean? What actually happened?” I will quote George Saunders.

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