George Saunders On Writing: Author of New York Times best seller tells all

Lincoln Memorial. Photo by Jeff Kubina [CC BY-SA 2.0]

At the time of writing, George Saunders' novel Lincoln in the Bardo is in its second week on the New York Times' bestseller list. After reading Colson Whitehead's review, I have the novel on my Book Depository wishlist. In an essay in The Guardian last week, Saunders discusses the creative process he adopts when writing. There are a number of small but helpful approaches and I record here the parts that struck a chord with me.

The first and probably the most important lesson is to keep the reader in mind. This should be no surprise, as I tell my students the same thing. But Saunders seems to assess each sentence using a P (positive) and N (negative) meter that he uses like a metaphorical head-up display as he writes. 

As Saunders writes, he asks himself "Where’s the needle?" and accepts:
...the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone". Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts.
The point is that through incrementalism, the story adjusts and the characters are allowed to develop, rather than writing to a strict plan. The essay includes a quaint anecdote from Gerald Stern about writing and producing a story to a plan. It refers to a story of two dogs.

But the respect for the reader is paramount. One has to give the reader what is expected. Not in terms of a predictable plot. That would be silly. But in terms of the process:
A work of fiction can be understood as a three-beat movement: a juggler gathers bowling pins; throws them in the air; catches them.
Saunders uses the example of Romeo pursuing Juliet, rather than deciding it's all too hard and skiving off to Spain (or wherever). Why throw pins in the air if they aren't going to land?

And then when the writer runs into an obstacle, rather than seeing these as a roadblock, see them as an opportunity. Remember to keep the audience in mind as you go through this process:
The reader will sense the impending problem at about the same moment the writer does, and part of what we call artistic satisfaction is the reader’s feeling that just the right cavalry has arrived, at just the right moment.
I have read works (or bits of works) on writing to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stephen King, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Somerset Maugham, George Bernard Shaw, and Cormac McCarthy, and this piece by George Saunders adds another string to the bow.

A key lesson is that letting the process take you where it goes is a good thing. I know this, having experienced it with my PhD thesis. Others just wanted it done. Write a plan, stick to the plan, produce the planned thesis. But is this a product of passion, art, and labour? Not at all. Letting the process happen is key.

Saunders sums this one up best:
Why do I feel this to be a hopeful thing? The way this pattern thrillingly completed itself? It may just be – almost surely is – a feature of the brain, the byproduct of any rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system.
Creation of an abstract mural. Photo by LaurMG [CC BY-SA 3.0]