George Saunders on the writing life

George Saunders published an essay in The New Yorker on the influence of his teachers throughout his writing life. Here are some notable excerpts from the piece:

Writers are often seen as reclusive, shy, keep-to-themselves types. While at Syracuse, George learned a different and perhaps more valuable lesson; that writers are supposed to be interesting to the people they meet. If they’re not interesting in real life, how are they supposed to be interesting in print?

  • “We are supposed to be—are required to be—interesting. We’re not only allowed to think about audience, we’d better. What we’re doing in writing is not all that different from what we’ve been doing all our lives, i.e., using our personalities as a way of coping with life. Writing is about charm, about finding and accessing and honing ones’ particular charms.”

Writers are professionals at rejection. A majority of people can’t handle rejection in any form, but imagine putting in hours and hours of time and brainpower into a piece only to have it dragged through the mud by a reviewer, or worse, not have it see the light of day at all? George recounts a time when his college professor, and published author, Doug Unger faced a bad review with grace:

  • “Doug talks about the importance of being able to extract the useful bits from even a hurtful review: this is important, because it will make the next book better. He talks about the fact that it was hard for him to get up this morning after that review and write, but that he did it anyway. He’s in it for the long haul, we can see. He’s a fighter, and that’s what we must become too: we have to learn to honor our craft by refusing to be beaten, by remaining open, by treating every single thing that happens to us, good or bad, as one more lesson on the longer path.”

And a few other poignant lines:

  • “I’d forgotten: literature is a form of fondness-for-life. It is love for life taking verbal form.”
  • “Good teaching is grounded in generosity of spirit.”
  • [On providing someone undivided attention while they speak and/or share with you] “He is, with his attention, making a place for her to tell her story—giving her permission to tell it, blessing her telling of it.”
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