Lit Fest Member Dispatch: George Saunders and the Art of Fearlessness

By Carley Tacker

The first time Eric Sasson met George Saunders, he didn’t realize who he was talking to. Easy going, humble, and far more interested in what you do, Saunders introduced himself to Sassoon as simply “George” after fifteen minutes of casual conversation in a crowded room packed with a collection of greats (Margaret Atwood for one).

[caption id="attachment_6163" align="alignright" width="105"]George Saunders George Saunders[/caption]

I first met George Saunders wedged in between two bookshelves—fiction and nonfiction—tucked away in the very bottom left corner of the shelf. I chose Pastoralia and the more recent Tenth of December. Saunders’ stories do what I like best, they allow you to disappear for a while, and so I did disappear for a few hours on that bottom shelf.

If there’s one thing you learn about Saunders after only a paragraph of his short stories, it’s that he is fearless. Coupling humor with a darker human element, Saunders is able to condense his stories and infuse meaning into a limited amount of space. He drops you right into the action, opening with such lines as:

“The pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cub-like mannerisms hulked to the mudroom closet and requisitioned Dad’s white coat.” (from Tenth of December)

Eric Sasson is like Saunders in this way—dropping us right into the action.

On the first day of our reading-as-a-writer workshop, Sasson stated that Saunders is not only innovative, satirical, and fun, but he is so successful in composing short stories because he makes decisions. Sasson said that while short story writing can tend to be the most difficult—having to condense an entire meaningful story into a short page length—the key to writing them is remaining craft-minded like Saunders. Never shy away from making active choices with your writing and when it comes to writing a short story, Sasson tactfully pointed out that sometimes the absence of something emphasizes that something’s importance.

While I’ve read my fair share of short stories, I’d never experienced short stories like Saunders and I’d never quite experienced a perspective like Sasson’s before.

Saunders matches the real through the surreal, presenting his reader with a slightly off-kilter world that’s not far off from the believable. He filters a reader’s experience through the vivid perception of his characters, committing to their language, like in The Semplica Girl Diaries, and not fearing the absurd, as in Sea Oak.

Sasson offers that sometimes the best way to begin a story is by writing the beginning last. He also advised to never fear how long your short stories may take you to write (one of my personal fears). Just because a story is short doesn’t mean they should take you any less time than a novel. Sasson shared that one of his short stories took him nearly a month to complete and that Saunders’ short story The Semplica Girl Diaries took him fourteen years to finish.

[caption id="attachment_5950" align="alignleft" width="150"]Eric Sasson Eric Sasson[/caption]

I don’t think I would have appreciated George Saunders’ work as much as I do without Sasson’s Lit Fest workshop. He made me, and everyone in the workshop, feel that we are capable of writing just about anything as long as we make decisions. In those six collective hours over the course of two days, I rediscovered a piece of my writing from a few years back and shared the beginning of it as part of a writing exercise, and my love of writing short stories was reignited.

Take Eric Sasson’s advice: Be fearless like Saunders. Actively make decisions with your writing and “make the action feel undeniable.”

If you haven’t already checked him out, I highly recommend Eric Sasson’s collection Margins of Tolerance. Sasson, like Saunders, is truly fearless in his writing.



Writers Studio

Lighthouse Writers Workshop welcomes George Saunders, September 20 & 21, 2014, for a weekend of craft talk, onstage reading and interview, and receptions.