George Saunders on Thinking of Story as Ceremony
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: One of the things that you said in the book, and this had to do with The Singers by Ivan Turgenev, was to think of story as a kind of ceremony. And I thought that was so beautiful. Can you share more about that?
George Saunders: Yeah. In class and in workshop at Syracuse, we’re talking about stories at a really high level. So somebody will bring in a story that they worked hard on. And I’ve noticed that the best workshops are the ones where somebody in the room kind of makes a very generous platonic statement of what the story is trying to be. In other words, before you launch into criticizing it, you have to kind of say, well, what is it? What are its aims? For me, this idea of ceremony is to say, if you walked into a Catholic mass, for example, and you sat through it, you would notice that there’s a shape to it; it’s all leading up to a communion in my understanding.
So then, what’s cool about that is it gives you a way to evaluate every single instant in the ceremony, because it was leading to something. If it was just two hours of droning with no dramatic shape, you know, one part is as good as the next and it’s all perfectly fine, no matter how you do it. But as soon as you put a culminating event into anything—first of all, it puts some pressure on the person creating it because you have to make that event happen, but what’s wonderful is that it gives you an aesthetic fulcrum to go in and say, okay, how’s my opening? When do I need to stop this thing? What’s the relevance of this particular song that we’re doing 20 minutes in? So, I think for me, it’s really helpful, looking at a story—mine or somebody else’s—to say, basically, what’s the reason for this thing to be in the world?
I always love the quote from Dr. Seuss, I think it’s from the Sleep Book, “That’s why I’m bothering telling you this.” So, why are you bothering telling me this story? And once you figure that out, it makes a lot of pressure because if you’re going on that basis, it really has to do something, it does have to build up to a climax. But once you determine it, it throws light on the whole rest of the story. And for us writers, the important thing is, it gives us a way to make decisions. We don’t have to have that terrible feeling where you are looking at a paragraph and going, should I cut this or not? I have no idea. But if you think of it as a ceremony, you’ll know.
Mitzi Rapkin: Is that something you realized from The Singers?
George Saunders: No, I don’t think so. I think that’s a general principle that I invoked in order to talk about that story with more precision. I think a lot of these principles in the book, they were visceral realizations that I have picked up over the years of writing. I often say they’re moves; you know, you develop certain moves. I think when I’m writing a story, I’m not really at all rationally thinking of these things. I’m just feeling it. I have a story going on, and it’s four pages of pretty clever writing, but there on page three and a half I just start to get a little bit of a letdown, feeling like, god, this guy is really relentlessly clever.
Okay, so then what? Then you start thinking, oh, yeah, so what is the point of these three and a half pages? What’s it leading to? Or what is it causing? And that, for me, it enforces a kind of necessary self-discipline to say you don’t just get to go on and on. I feel like each bit needs to lead to something. So that’s the principle. And then when you go to write a book like this, you formalize it and you make up clever examples, but you first learned it in your gut out of failure.
George Saunders is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of ten books, including Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize; Congratulations, by the way; Tenth of December, a finalist for the National Book Award; The Braindead Megaphone; and the critically acclaimed short story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, and In Persuasion Nation. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.