george-saunders

It’s a cycle. You start a story, and it’s stupid. You don’t have any ideas. You’re washed up. Finished. And then you get a sliver of an idea, but it’s kind of dumb. Ugh. Then you start working it, and it becomes, oh, maybe. Alright. Yeah, I am going to finish this story. I did finish it! It’s not terrible! [Then] you don’t have any ideas. Is that what life is? It’s just a series of enacting the cycle. Lately, it’s become kind of wonderful to say, ‘Yeah, so now I’m at the point where I don’t have any ideas. Is is a crisis? No, it’s not a crisis. You’ve been here before. And maybe even you could enjoy that moment when you’re bereft of ideas… The goal would be to keep enacting that [cycle], live to 190, and put the period on the best story ever.
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
—  George Saunders’ Advice to Graduates at Syracuse University, 2013

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

—  In his absolutely fantastic Syracuse commencement address on the immense value of kindness, George Saunders echoes Albert Einstein and adds to this year’s most memorable graduation speeches, including Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, Greil Marcus on the false divide between “high” and “low” culture, Arianna Huffington on success, Joss Whedon on embracing our inner contradictions, Oprah Winfrey on failure and finding your purpose, and Judith Butler on the value of reading and the humanities.
A work of art is something produced by a person, but is not that person — it is of her, but is not her. It’s a reach, really — the artist is trying to inhabit, temporarily, a more compact, distilled, efficient, wittier, more true-seeing, precise version of herself — one that she can’t replicate in so-called ‘real’ life, no matter how hard she tries. That’s why she writes: to try and briefly be more than she truly is.
Let’s say that you were madly in love with someone. And your mission was to tell the person that you love them. Here are two scenarios. One is you can take a week long train trip with the person, take your time. You’ll be in boring situations, beautiful scenery, everything. That’s a novel. The second scenario is she’s stepping on the train and you have three minutes. So you have to make all that decoration in three minutes. That’s a short story. You just have to shout it as she goes.
—  George Saunders
In art, and maybe just in general, the idea is to be able to be really comfortable with contradictory ideas. In other words, wisdom might be, seem to be, two contradictory ideas both expressed at their highest level and just let to sit in the same cage sort of, vibrating. So, I think as a writer, I’m really never sure of what I really believe.
—  George Saunders
A work of art is something produced by a person, but is not that person — it is of her, but is not her. It’s a reach, really — the artist is trying to inhabit, temporarily, a more compact, distilled, efficient, wittier, more true-seeing, precise version of herself — one that she can’t replicate in so-called ‘real’ life, no matter how hard she tries. That’s why she writes: to try and briefly be more than she truly is.
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Colbert: Why do you write short stories? America likes big. Go big or go home. We like big, huge, huge, huge novels. 

Saunders: I’ll tell you why. If you imagine this, let’s say you were madly in love with somebody and your mission was to tell the person that you love them. So here’s two scenarios: one is you can take a weeklong train trip with the person, take your time, you’ll be in boring situations, beautiful scenery, everything. That’s a novel.

Colbert: Sounds good, sounds really good.

Saunders: The second scenario is she’s stepping on the train and you’ve got three minutes. So you have to make all that declaration in three minutes. That would be a short story.

Colbert: Can I get on the train with her?

Saunders: No, you’ve just got to shout it as she goes.

Colbert: Why can’t I get on the train?

Saunders: Because it’s a short story. You’re not allowed. You have to end it in eight pages and get out.

Colbert: But this is the short story I want to read – where is she going? Why can’t I go with her? We’re on to something here. Does she love me back? I’ve got to know!

Saunders: I don’t know yet! Sometimes a short story will just end with that question – does she love me back? So it’s a very special kind of beauty.

Saunders will be at the library with another eminent talk show host, Dick Cavett, next Tuesday, Feb. 26 to talk about his much-lauded latest story collection, “Tenth of December.”