Insights on Writing with George Saunders

In his semester-long class, George Saunders teaches a number of the great classic Russian short story writers. Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov, amongst others. His discussions about the stories always begin generically. What was interesting? What was odd? Then, something happens – something magical, usually early on. George begins to extract small and brilliant beads of wisdom from the text – wisdom about the writing process, about what makes a short story irresistible. Suddenly, the class transforms into a strange and precise blueprint for aspiring writers. George says, “Trust your boredom. Don’t write what bores you,” and “A writer has to have empathy at the tips of his fingers.” He says, “We are in the business of persuasion, but we are also suspicious,” and “Present questions realistically, rather than answering them.”

Sitting in his class, George’s words seem a lot like the transfer of secrets through a chain-link of writers, beginning with the Russians, shooting up through George, and landing with a hard clunk in my head. A lot of time, he says something, and I think, Yes, of course! I knew that all along. Because these aren’t really secrets. They are truths that generally scare the fingertips off new writers. His wisdom confirms that flaw and uncertainty and variety and empathy (especially empathy) are positive aspects of the writing process. And that’s just terrifying to a new writer who tries so hard to make something identifiably good.

Rebecca Fishow is a writer and artist living in Montreal. She holds an MFA from Syracuse University, where she was the Cornelia Carhart Ward fellow, the recipient of the Joyce Carol Oates Nonfiction Award, and an art editor for Salt Hill Journal. Her work can be found in The Fiddleback.

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