George Saunders on Writing

A few days ago I drove into the city to pick up a copy of the latest Believer. I was particularly interested in reading Sarah Manguso’s piece on Russell Edson and Ben Marcus’s interview with George Saunders, neither of which are online yet. Like Aimee Bender, another writer with a reputation as a great teacher, George Saunders comes across in print as a kind and generous person. He will do interviews with everybody, even the smallest sites, and he always seems to have something truly wise to say. The story (below) about the 86-year-old self-published novelist put me in mind of Saunders’s response to a question about whether writing can be taught:

I suspect that what your Cross Old Man was trying to say was: only one young writer in a thousand ever gets a book out, and of those books, only one in a thousand lasts in even the slightest way, so why are you writing-program teachers holding out hope to so many young people, when you know and I know that only one out of a thousand out of an original thousand have any hope of writing an enduring work of literature? And basically, I would agree with that. The chances of a person breaking through their own habits and sloth and limited mind to actually write something that gets out there and matters to people are slim. But I also suspect that your Cross Old Man is too narrowly careerist. Because he seems to be neglecting the fact that, even for those thousands of young people who don’t get something out there, the process is still a noble one — the process of trying to say something, of working through the craft issues, and the worldview issues, and the ego issues — all of this is character-building, and God forbid everything we do should have to have Concrete Career Results. I’ve seen, time and again, the way the process of trying to say something that matters dignifies and improves a person. I’ve seen it in my own failures, in writing and otherwise. I think it comes down to the motivation of the individual student. If the student writer wants to get over, become famous, dominate others with his talent — then no matter what, he’s going to lose. On the other hand, if he wants to go deeply into himself, subjugate his own pettiness, discover some big truths about life — there’s no way he can lose. And the thing is, we all have both of those motivations within us, every second that we’re writing. So it’s an ongoing, lifelong battle to write for the right reasons.