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George Saunders: A Hill of One’s Own

I’ve been really enjoying George Saunders’ fantastic A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. As well as showcasing some great Russian short stories it’s technically insightful, down-to-earth (i.e. ‘attuned to the reader’) and funny. Recommended.

Here he is on finding his voice as a writer after years of writing (he says) serious-but-ploddy, Hemmingway-esque short stories:

A switch got thrown in my head, and the next day I started writing in that new mode – allowing myself to be entertaining, setting aside my idea of what a “classic” story sounded like, and my usual assumption that only things that happened in the real world were allowed to happen in a story…

I wrote it a few lines at a time, not sure where it was going (what its arc was, or its theme, or its “message”), just paying attention to the line-by-line energy and especially to the humour, keeping an eye on my imaginary reader, to see if she was still with me… and wanted more of the story rather than hoping it would end mercifully soon…

When I finished the story, I could see that it was the best thing I’d ever written. There was some essential “me-ness” in it – for better or worse, no one else could have written it. The things that were actually on my mind at the time, because they were actually in my life, were in the story… The story was oddly made, slightly embarassing – because it revealed my actual taste, which, it turned out, was kind of working-class and raunchy and attention seeking. I held that story up against the stories I loved (some of which are in this book) and felt I’d let the form down.

So this moment of supposed triumph (I’d “found my voice!”) was also sad.

It was as if I’d sent the hunting dog that was my talent out across a meadow to fetch a magnificent pheasant and it had brought back, let’s say, the lower half of a Barbie doll.

To put it another way: having gone about as high up Hemingway Mountain as I could go, having realized that even at my best I could only ever hope to be an acolyte up there, resolving never again to commit the sin of being imitative, I stumbled back down into the valley and came upon a little shit-hill labeled “Saunders Mountain.”

“Hmm,” I thought. “It’s so little. And it’s a shit-hill.”

Then again, that was my name on it.

This is a big moment for any artist (this moment of combined triumph and disappointment), when we have to decide whether to accept a work of art that we have to admit we weren’t in control of as we made it and of which we’re not entirely sure we approve. It is less, less than we wanted it to be, and yet it’s more, too—it’s small and a bit pathetic, judged against the work of the great masters, but there it is, all ours.

What we have to do at that point, I think, is go over, sheepishly but boldly, and stand on our shit-hill, and hope it will grow.

And—to belabor this already questionable metaphor—what will make that shit-hill grow is our commitment to it, the extent to which we say, “Well, yes, it is a shit-hill, but it’s my shit-hill, so let me assume that if I continue to work in this mode that is mine, this hill will eventually stop being made of shit, and will grow, and from it, I will eventually be able to see (and encompass in my work) the whole world.”

George SaundersA Swim in A Pond in the Rain

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