Interview with George Saunders
Harvard Advocate Staff
George Saunders is the author of two novellas and four short story collections, including Civil War Land in Bad Decline (1996) and his most recent work, Tenth of December (2013). A New York Times bestselling author and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and MacArthur “Genius Grant,” his career has been met with both popular and critical success. He now teaches creative writing at Syracuse University’s MFA program. This fall, Advocate Features Board member Warner James Wood conducted this interview over email. It has been edited for concision and clarity.
Alright, George, let’s get you warmed up: If the zombie apocalypse started right now, what skill would you bring to the table to save the human race? Would you be a guy I’d want on my zombie-defense team?
Earnest, respectful negotiation. So no, you don’t want me on your team. My understanding of zombies is that they pretty much plow right past the “earnest respectful negotiation” phase.
Good to know. Now, I’ve read a few interviews in preparation for this one, and interviewers seem to always ask how an author developed her voice or style over her career. To spare you from that one, how did you develop your approach to answering interview questions over your career? You’ve had quite a few.
Fair. Let’s jump right into it, then. How was 7th grade for you? Were you the bully or the bullied? The class clown or the scholar?
I was neither bully nor bullied. I’d say I was part clown, part scholar. I had a lot of comic impulses but too much respect for (fear of) authority to be a full-out clown. The big incident that year was that I inadvertently pulled out a chair on a nun, who went down in a heap. It was a complete accident but afterward I learned something valuable and not-so-great about myself: I immediately stopped saying it was an accident as soon as I saw how much respect I was getting by going along with the popular assumption that I’d done it on purpose.
Very funny. In fact, your work is full of jokes. One of my favorites comes from The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, where you describe the President’s Palace as “decorated with paintings of various types of animals the President liked to eat, served on plates, although in the paintings the animals were still alive and had all their fur on and looked a little panicked.” Tell me, does your mother find you funny?
Occasionally, yes. She always did, God love her. Actually, it’s funny you should mention her, because one of the reasons I’m a writer is that when I was young I got addicted to what we might call “approval from females.” I had two sisters, and the aforementioned mother, and a lot of girl cousins and aunts, and was the only boy on my mom’s (Texas) side of the family for a pretty long time—and I think I picked up some sort of urge-to-entertain from that arrangement. And both sides of my family are very funny—it’s kind of part of the package, on both sides, that you learn to play along and participate.
I don’t tend to think in terms of jokes, per se—that’s too much pressure. For me it’s more useful to think of trying to really be in whatever fictive moment I’m in, as concept-free as possible—that way, if there is a joke (or an opportunity for a deepening move, or a nice description) I’ll be there to receive it, so to speak. And this is a process of simultaneously “imagining” the moment and inhabiting the actual sentence—looking to see if there’s some detail of the imagined world that you missed while, in the same instant, feeling around in the sentence to see if there’s some way to make it tighter/better/more unique. Sometimes a funny bit is the response—but I find it more useful to not try and steer my work toward funniness—or toward anything, really. There’s energy in any bit of prose and that energy is actually telling you where to go. Or, as I heard Stuart Dybek say once, “The story is always talking to you; you just have to listen.”
“Imagining” is definitely a strong suit for you. With many of your stories, I’d say you’re in the business of world-making. Sometimes these worlds are theme parks, sometimes kooky offices. What are some of your favorite “created worlds” you’ve either been to or read? Where did the fascination with these originate?
It’s really more a technique than an interest. Something happens to my prose when I set a story in one of those places. My natural sincerity and sentimentality and my minimalist prose instincts get cross-purposed in a productive way.
I do like those places though—I had a really wonderful day at Six Flags over Texas when I was about ten, and never forgot it—that particular delight of being somewhere that is simultaneously artificial and gorgeous. So maybe there’s some relation between my affection for those places and my prose—just that, when I “make” such a place, I get a little thrill that is not unlike the thrill I first got all those years ago, seeing some mechanical fish in an artificial pond. But honestly, my feeling is that a writer is maybe more akin to an athlete or musician than he is to a critic—the point is, if something works, you do it—and the reasons why it works are maybe not so essential.
Since you brought up music, there’s a picture of you online where you’re rocking’80s-style long hair and a guitar. I’ve always heard that timing is the most important part of comedy. Has music influenced your rhythm?
I’d imagine so, though I’d be hard-pressed to articulate just how. One thing playing music (or listening to it, for that matter) does is make you aware of the fact that it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. The other beneficial thing about playing music, especially playing live, is that when you’re doing that, there’s no confusion about your purpose. You’re supposed to provide pleasure. Being smart, “advancing a theme,” sneaking in a message—none of that gets you much. I had a big breakthrough in my writing around the time of my first book, and that was the essence of it: (finally) remembering to allow myself to be entertaining again. And I’m sure all those years of playing music helped me make that jump.
But you do a great job of sneaking. I’ll be reading one of your stories and rolling with the funny business, and the next thing I know I’ve been stabbed in some emotional underbelly and have arrived at some semblance of morality. Not everyone can get there without seeming sentimental, and you do it without me even noticing it’s happening. Do jokes operate in your stories to etch away at your readers’ fortification so you can stick them where it hurts? Or why else pepper such dark stories with comedy?
I don’t have a theory on this, honestly. To me it’s something like riding a bike. If you feel that you’re leaning right, you adjust left. It’s an intuitive thing that happens when I imagine my reader—I’ll be reading along while editing and just feel, you know, “Ugh, too serious” (or too sentimental, or cloying, or preachy—whatever) and then adjust accordingly. Some of this happens along what we might call high/low lines—if I find I’m writing sincerely and earnestly, and have gotten the bang from that (that is, this ideal reader is with me, and feeling the bang with me) and then I feel that, however, we might be inching out on to the thin ice of Too Much of That Shit, I’ll drop into a lower register and seek the humor, as a sort of pressure-release valve. That way, you have it both ways—you get the high/elevated/sincere feeling, and just when the reader is about to look askance at you for going over the top (being too overt in your heart-string-pulling), you recognize that, back it down—and in the process win an extra iota of readerly trust. It might be akin to a conversation, really, especially with someone you’ve just met. You are, in a sense, demonstrating range—showing that you can go high and go low, and at the same time demonstrating an awareness of, and respect for, your reader, by being acutely attentive to where she actually is at any given moment. You’re in conversation—it’s not a lecture, not (merely) a (tone-deaf, audience-ignoring) performance.
How do you know when you’ve reached “Too Much of That Shit”? When a joke’s gone flat? And I’m not taking “Practice, practice” for an answer this time.
My main revision thing is just to try and clear my mind of what I thought about the piece yesterday and go through it the way a first-time reader would. That first reader is approximately me if I hadn’t read it a zillion times already—it’s actually a kind of simulation of that guy—a simulation I’m running in my mind. And I just watch him. When his energy drops or his resistance comes up, I edit accordingly. So at a bad joke (or at a less-good repetition of an earlier joke) I’ll see the reading energy drop just a tad. That’s the sign that a cut is in order. (Or an adjustment.) That’s it, really. Just see what that inner reader is feeling, adjust. Make the changes that this process calls for, reprint, clear the mind—read it all again. Rinse, lather, repeat, for like ten months. Or however long it takes for that reader to be pleased, start to finish.
Do you have a particular reader whose “inner feeling” you trust for advice? Or are you a door-closed kind of writer?
My wife reads all of my stuff before it goes out, but I really try to have things in order before I give it to her. I don’t like having a lot of readers because ceding authority to a reader feels to me like a form of taking one’s hands off the wheel. And I find that I am easily swayed by the opinions of others. So if someone reads something and goes, “Oh, I like this part,” that makes it hard for me to cut it later—which might be necessary to get to the highest version of the story. Likewise, if somebody doesn’t like a part, that sort of kills it for me. And it might just be that more revision is needed before that bit gets up to speed. So for all of these reasons, I really, really like to maintain control of a piece for as long as I can.
Did there come a time in your writing life when the blank page stopped being so frightening?
Yes, and honestly it was when I learned to revise. If you are confident in your ability to convert shit to gold, or at least tin foil, then there’s nothing to worry about. You just go ahead and—well, let’s divert from that metaphor. You just type and type, knowing that it’s all conditional and temporary and that you can form it into something interesting by going back over it again and again. I love this idea that your first draft is NOT YOU. It’s just “of” you. It’s “for you”—to work with. Who you are as a writer is much more about your method of (and courage in) revision. (And this is also true of your 100th draft— it’s still not you, but only of you.)
I’d love to hear about how you get into a story. One of my favorite writers, Amy Hempel, says to start at the point of most contentment, the most satisfying moment, instead of the most jeopardy. Your stories are typically short and alive from the first sentence; is that a product of revision or do your drafts begin that way as well?
She’s one of my favorites too—a total master. I think I usually end up cutting a bunch of stuff and finding the opening that way—that is, sort of backing into it. I try not to get too obsessed about making a big wonderful opening. Too much pressure. I just want to get in there and get started, knowing that the story’s going to earn its keep, really, with what happens in the middle and the end anyway. (If we think of a story as a series of meaningful events that produce the next meaningful event, then the first big sign of progress for me on a given story is when I dimly perceive what those events are, or what the first few are—and then the beginning is usually the minimum thing I have to do to make the first meaningful event happen.)
So mostly I just throw some scraps down and start working with those. Kind of like a guy who shows up for an important social event and sneaks in the side door, knowing that the success or failure of the event doesn’t depend on his fancy entrance. So often there’ll be some long intro stuff that I’m very proud of, and that I think is just essential to the meaning of the story, that winds up proving inessential and gets cut. Always a happy moment.
How about the flip-side—what are your thoughts on endings? Many of your stories seem to end in the worst possible ways. As in, I’ll find myself thinking, How can this get any worse? And then it does. Way worse. Then it ends. Do you ever feel an urge to throw your character a bone once in a while?
I think I’m throwing them a bone all the time, by paying really close attention to them—trying to give them the widest scope of action I can. This tendency you’re talking about—the piling on of worsening circumstances—is not really an attitude toward character, but toward story—for some reason, I get more heat when I think of my pieces as lab experiments. If we want to learn about “love,” then we have to test it. So those turns in the plot are ways of turning up the heat.
There are, of course, lots of ideas about endings, and each writer winds up discovering his own, by just trying to accomplish some, you know? Some that don’t stink. So I don’t have a big theory on endings—each story should produce its own ending, unique to itself and hopefully new in some way. But my current understanding of (my) stories is that each part should serve to crank things up, even up to the very last phrase or sentence—the heat keeps going up. Which is another way of saying that the rhetorical basis of the story is understood (by writer and reader) and is exhausted—we go through all of its rooms, so to speak. Things get more complicated, the various moral hallways are investigated and closed-down, until there is one stretch of hallway left, and we run down it and…I don’t know. Burst through the wall? But a story has an essential underlogic that is really what it’s about. So I don’t care at all about whether that process entails a “happy” or “sad” ending for the character. I want the ending to be happy for the story—that is, I want the ending to use up and actualize all of the energy it has been creating along the way.
So, for example, a story like “Puppy” in the new book might qualify as one where things get worse. But the ending there felt, to me, sort of happy, in the sense that the internal logic of the story has been honored, and in honoring it, the story made a sort of interesting machine, wherein two well-intentioned people, who both love their kids, have produced this unintended and negative consequence. And if it’s working for the reader, she should feel: Yes, it is sometimes thus. And it is sometimes thus, I think—our love for others and our excellent intentions are sometimes insufficient, and sometimes this is even unbeknownst to us as we act. So a certain light gets thrown off, at that realization—and that’s happy.
Great. Let’s segue a bit. I’ve read that you were a geophysicist in college, and at a reading in Cambridge (at the Brattle Theatre last spring) you talked about how you did some of your favorite writing on-the-job at oil companies. Who were you reading back in your geophysicist days? When did you decide to start writing things down?
When I was a geophysics student I was reading a lot of Ayn Rand and Kahlil Gibran, and just starting to read more serious literature, most of it from the 1920s and 1930s: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Dos Passos, Faulkner. Then when I went overseas I had lots of reading time (I worked four weeks on and two weeks off at an oil camp in Sumatra) so I started branching out, sort of haphazardly.
The day before I came back to the crew I would go to a bookstore in Singapore and just load whatever I could fit in one suitcase. So it might be Herman Hesse and Dostoevsky and Mailer…just whoever I’d come across that I’d heard of. Sort of hit-or-miss. I started writing at that point. At night you had a choice: Go get wrecked in our little “bar” (a thatched hut a stone’s throw from the office) or go off and do something on your own. There wasn’t much to do—there were big lizards in the woods and now and then a tiger would be spotted. So I would read, or sometimes go back over to the office and write early attempts at stories—which, of course, were mostly just thinly veiled accounts of whatever trip I’d been on last, with a clever “frame”—usually some old fading guy in a senior home “remembering” his brilliant youth in Asia, when he’d worked on an oil crew in Sumatra, etc. etc.
As a scientist myself, I have noticed there seems to be a stigma within writing circles against those less well-versed in literature. You seem to have taken a rather distinctive path to where you are now. Did an interdisciplinary approach help? Hurt? How about your time in the work world?
I think it helped and hurt. Not having had the same formative influences, exactly, as my peers, I tend to come at things from an odd angle, which can sometimes be good. The travel I did (and the type of travel it was) maybe ramped up a certain tendency I had anyway, which was to think of fiction as fundamentally a moral-ethical endeavor—a way of understanding the world better and figuring out how to live in it appropriately. My travel also politicized me pretty early, in a real visceral way. I was basically an affable earth-raper, and learned about things like imperialism and oppression and the queasy smashing power of capital by being part of a group that was (affably) doing these things. So my background got me into some strange and interesting places I wouldn’t have been allowed into otherwise, and allowed me to be there naturally, i.e., without that distortion of behavior that a known journalist in the room causes.
On the other hand, I find I’m a little under-confident in my writing, which has to do, I think, with my sketchy reading and critical background—I got a late start in general, and am still trying to come to grips with longer forms.
I promised myself I wouldn’t ask, because I don’t think I’ve read a single interview where you were not asked, “Is a NOVEL in the works?” So, no, I’m not going to ask that. But since you mention your coming to grips with longer forms, why do you think we care so much about your writing a novel? In our sound-bite generation obsessed with Tweets and lists, wouldn’t you think we’d be partial to the short forms over the long?
I don’t know—I think I’d be wary of that “we” pronoun. Seems reasonable to me that people would enjoy Twitter and so on and also be able to switch gears and go off and read Ulysses. I think people do things like that all the time. Our minds are really good at making boundaries and conceiving of different modes of activity, I think. The same guy “reads Tacitus” and then seconds later begins to “play badminton, in comical shorts.”
As for whether I’ll write a novel—I think it’s a natural and understandable question—even flattering. I’ve had that same impulse when reading short-story writers I like—to want to see, more directly stated, their “world-view” and have the pleasure of seeing a world created over many pages and so on. But the thing is, when I start out to write something, I’m not “deciding” anything. I’m just trying to see if I can get something going. So many times, I’ve had something that was long—even novel-length—suddenly inform me that it was not a novel after all, by being boring. I think the questions, “Why the short story?” or “Will there be a novel?” both embody a certain misunderstanding of the process by which a work of fiction gets generated—or at least how it gets generated by me.
That said, I think the story form is very sophisticated and takes some indoctrination. A casual reader might find his expectations of “a story” more directly satisfied by a conventional, novel-length, realistic work. It “feels” like life, or like the stories we tell about life. (“That guy? Started out poor, got rich, married a beautiful girl, had it all, then got greedy, lost it all.”) The story is, I think, a more specialized and compressed and exaggerated form. It’s about a certain moment coming to fruition. It doesn’t care so much about “how things turn out”—but rather about “what just happened?” Just as a certain experience in poetry is necessary to understand really great poetry, a person reading a story is well-served by having read a bunch of others and having cultivated a sense of what a story does uniquely.
Do you have any predictions for the fate of the short story once us Tweeters are out of our universities and into the world? Will they come more so into focus?
I don’t think it’s gone out of focus or fashion. It’s always been a more niche form, I think—but a particularly American one and you can’t drop into any decade without finding amazing story writers working in it. What happens, I think, in the media, is very similar to what you see in fashion magazines: the world is doing what the world does, but the magazine proclaims that “Skirts are back!” or “The Return of Red” or whatever. Also—I mean, the Twitter generation is out in the world, already, and they are also reading fiction, long and short—so I don’t know. I run into brilliant young readers all the time, who are fully engaged in real life and e-life and reading life, and are actively engaged in trying to sort all of that out, in order to live in the way that makes the most sense of them.
Along these lines, the one thing I have observed (in myself) is that, the more I’m on-line and texting and so on, the less well I am able to process big complex blocks of text. I know this because I resisted having a smartphone for a pretty long time, then dove in and went overboard, and could absolutely see, over those first few months, the diminishment in my reading capabilities. I definitely got more distractible, was skimming ahead, more easily bored, etc. etc. So I’m trying to watch that. It’s a commonplace that working on screens rewires the brain, and I am just thinking that I’d prefer to retain my ability to track complexity in prose, and am trying to adjust my habits accordingly.
Do you ever feel pressure (from readers, from publishers) to write in a different form? You’re someone who has been very successful exclusively writing short fiction—what you think about the state of the art form?
I’ve never been pressured at all about this, honestly. I did OK with a first book of stories and so from then it’s just been perfectly fine for me to write whatever I liked. Now, that’s a good position to be in, and it’s helped immeasurably that I have a great agent (Esther Newberg at ICM)—she understands me first and foremost as an artist, and trusts me to make those sorts of calls. But basically I think a writer, especially a new writer, has to be very frank and strict with herself (while also being joyful!) and cast aside all of “should” and “must” and “preferable to” statements and do what she wants. That’s where the power is. What gets you excited, what sort of writing leads you into confusing and rich places, and so on.
Now and then I feel some pressure from myself to write a novel, but that pressure is just the desire to fully inhabit what talent I have before I kick off. So due diligence might require, every few years, reopening the novel door—just saying to myself: Any interest there? Or, in the middle of a story, if I feel some sense that it might want to be longer, allowing that attempt. Just see if it works. There are particular charms that a novel presents, and it would be fun to get to do some of that—to be able to write text that is not so slavishly bound to functionality as my model of the short story requires. But again—that desire might be real AND the result might stink—in which case, it would have to be discarded.
I guess what I’m saying generally here is that, in my experience, we can formulate a lot of questions about craft and aesthetics and what writers should and shouldn’t do and so on—but the bottom-line is the creation of some sort of undeniable text—something that calls up something intense and non-trivial in the reader, and engages her at the deepest level—is the one and only job. And a writer can’t choose what, of the many things she can do, might produce such an effect. That is, actually, “the apprenticeship” or “finding one’s voice” or whatever we want to call it: that process of finding out what you can do, at that given time, that will produce an undeniable energy.
Alright, let’s call this the home stretch. It’s “career” time. As both a writer and a teacher of writing, I’m curious as to how you feel about the institutionalization of creative writing. It seems like everywhere a young writer looks points toward academia, first as a student, then as a teacher. I’m not extremely knowledgeable about the history of creative-writing-as-career, besides it not being one and then being one and now being one only in the face of the university system. Do you think this is healthy for the arts? What’s the role of the writer as we become increasingly dependent on the institution?
It’s a really good question. I always tell young writers that there are two big roaming falsehoods that have really picked up power in the last ten years: (1) If you want to be a writer, you have to have an MFA, and (2) If you get an MFA, you will be a writer. Both are false as hell. Part of me longs for the days when getting an MFA was, for friends and family, sort of a head-scratcher, as in “What IS that? Why would you want it? Isn’t it going to screw up your life?”
Now, as you suggest, it’s assumed that writing is a career (rather than a vocation) and I think that’s wrong. Demonstrably wrong, when you look at how many MFA grads there are every year (lots) and how many books are published (few). And beyond that, look at how many published books are daring and important and beloved. It’s as hard now to be an essential and original writer as it ever was—but maybe we’re obfuscating that fact with all of this false-hope-giving professionalism. One thing I’ve noticed is that there seems to have been a shift in how young writers feel about being writers—from “I know it’s nuts but I just HAVE to try it or I’ll die,” to “Well, I guess I’ll go ahead and consent to being an author, by getting a master’s in it, since I pretty much wouldn’t mind having a book out someday, which would be pretty cool, I guess, to do that for a job.” I don’t see this at Syracuse, but more when I go around to undergrad programs—this idea that one becomes a writer by dutifully trodding a certain professional path, at which time the system plops out some Recognition. Now, having said that, I’ll rush around to the other side of the table and say that, if someone is really burning to try the artistic path, the MFA world is a wonderful way to do that, so that, later in life, you won’t feel like you chickened out. There’s certainly no harm, and potentially a lot of benefit, in spending two or three years closely reading texts and writing and revising your own with the help of a community. And there’s benefit to doing that, even if you never publish a word—your mind has been sharpened and you’ve become a more spacious human being.
Continuing a bit from that, we’ve all read or heard your address to Syracuse grads last spring. What advice would you give to young writers, particularly recent grads or future recent grads, when they’re faced with what my parents would call “real-world” jobs vs. finding ways to devote time to the craft?
I think the main thing is to try and void out that distinction. We all have to earn a living. And that’s often how we find our material anyway—by wading out into the real world and seeing what’s beautiful about it and what’s sinister and so on. So I’d say the main thing is this: if you think of yourself as writer, you are one. If you think, “This thing I’m doing is part of my writing life”—then it is. Whatever a person is doing, she’s living, and if she’s doing that living with her eyes and heart open, then, I’d say, potentially, she is feeding her artistic life. There is, of course (always) the issue of time—how in the world does a young person put in all the hours she needs to put in, to foster the necessary breakthroughs and find out who she is, artistically, AND, at the same time, provide for herself? To which I would say: Yes, right, exactly. That is the issue. Everyone has had to face it. So I don’t think the goal is to avoid the slog so that one “can write.” My experience was that it was only when I was chest-deep in the slog that I came to understand what I was supposed to be writing about. But here’s another argument for the MFA program, and also a thought of when a person might want to try it. If you are out there working and writing, and making steady progress, each story better than the previous one, new technical problems presenting and being solved—maybe you don’t need to go back to school (yet. Or at all). But if it starts to feel that you’ve hit a plateau—you have plenty to say, but are frustrated in your ability to say it, and your stories aren’t getting better the way they used to get better, and they all seem to stall out at the same point, or manifest the same problem—then maybe that would argue for a few years of dedicated writing. But you wouldn’t want to cash in that chip too early, I think—I’ve seen young writers who hadn’t quite lived enough come to our program, and then they’re frustrated—they have the chops but nothing to subjugate those chops too, so to speak. But every writer is different, and, of course, has to decide for herself—and even that (the way she makes that decision) is part and parcel of the artist she is.
Alright, last question. You have said in past interviews that you hoped your newest book,Tenth of December, would be your most expansive work to date. You went on to say that you aimed to reach readers with this collection that you had not yet reached with the others. I’m always fascinated by writers’ intention for readership. There’s a theory on writers that says they invariably come from a formative experience where language meant power, and the greater the readership, the greater the power. Others might say they want a more expansive audience because what they have to say is important, political. Some I assume just want more money. Will you tell me a little about how you perceive your readership, and how that perception may have changed since your earlier works?
Well, basically, when I’m on my deathbed, I want to feel that, in my life, I was daring—that I’d gone as far as I could in the direction of making whatever beauty I could manage to make. That I’d swung for the fences. Now, I’ve noticed that my work isn’t for everyone. That might be because the masses are too lowly to get me (ha) OR it might be that I am unconsciously writing in a way that excludes people, out of insecurity. So when I say I want to reach a larger audience, what I mean is: I want to write at the top of my register. I want to be brave. I want to tap into that part of me that is genuine and curious and thinks well of my audience. Of course, I also want to avoid blundering into the sentimental or banal. Basically, I want to find a way to be maximally communicative—and that is going to contain two vectors, basically: (1) how many people read it and (2) how deep it is. I once saw Frank Conroy draw his big arc on the chalkboard and at one end writer “W” (for Writer) and at the other “R” (for Reader). He said that every writer is somewhere on that arc—more attuned to the Reader (at the extreme end would be someone bending over backwards to be accessible and liked) or more attuned to the Writer (at that extreme end would be a writer so deeply internal that he didn’t care if his work was unintelligible). Conroy’s point was that the writer has a part to play in placing himself on that arc. Part of it is disposition, part of it is will. I think I am in the process of trying to move myself slightly in the direction of the “R”—because I have an instinct that my best writing will result from that attempt.
For me, this is an ongoing journey that started—well, even during the first book. I had figured out how to write dark, minimal, somewhat cartoonish stories that moved along pretty quickly and were (to my surprise) coming closer to expressing my real and urgent feelings than anything I’d ever done before. But to do that, I was deliberately clipping off certain modalities. (That might actually be a good working definition of making art: “clipping off certain modalities.”) So in the next book, I tried to edge up a little closer to the cliff: put more of the physical world in there, experiment with pitching the prose a little higher, be o.k. with more ambiguity, etc., etc.
I think that’s what writing is, essentially: trying to modify one’s approach so that more light is given off. And we do this by constantly interrogating our own stuff. Too sentimental? Still truthful? Am I properly respecting the real darkness of the world? How about its luminosity? Is the prose getting more full? Am I getting it right about human cruelty? Human kindness? Etc., etc.
I’m actually not all that concerned about audience, per se—but am very interested in learning to write with my full humanity. That is: learning to resist my instinctive fealty to certain moves that got me through the door in the first place. This involves—well, it involves the basic faith that beyond those moves are...other moves. And those might even be deeper.
The goal, I think, is freedom. Freedom from our fear of failure, freedom from mere habit, freedom from the urge to protect oneself. Having actually done something in writing can make a kind of prison for the writer. He might start to think that way (the way he just did it) is the only way to do it. He could start to associate his artistic self with that one methodology, and thereby limit and freeze himself: a nightmare. The goal is to keep freeing yourself up to go in whatever direction feels most interesting and urgent.