Lit Roundup: George Saunders, James McBride and More Wood

Remco-TYPEWRITER_1– Video: Office Hours with George Saunders:

When you’re writing a character, for example, your first draft is often–in my case, I’m often using the person to make jokes, so I’m kind of looking down on the person and getting jokes from his or her obvious flaws. Then what happens is you have to somehow, in this revision process, bring them up, so they’re not so far below you and, ideally, so they’re right even with you, so we can understand that as a process of re-imagining them. How do you feel? What’s your problem? Why are you so grouchy? And then they become more three dimensional and easier to love. I think that the act of re-imagining them is love. And I find in real life, the same thing . . . But really the deeper goal is to be more loving, more courageous, more accepting, more patient, but also less full of shit. So, in other words, to really step up to the beauties of life and the horrors of it without any flinching.

– James Wood: Why?

When I was a child, the “Why?” question was acute, and had a religious inflection. I grew up in an intellectual household that was also a religious one, and with the burgeoning apprehension that intellectual and religious curiosity might not be natural allies . . . When I asked where God came from, my mother showed me her wedding ring and suggested that, like it, God had no beginning and no end. (But I knew that someone had made the ring) . . . So inquiry was welcomed up to a certain point, but discouraged as soon as it became rebellious . . . I would reply to their esoterica with my esoterica, their official lies with my amateur lies . . . Lying went all the way down: you started by withholding the big truth, your atheism, and ended by withholding small truths–that you swore among friends, or listened to Led Zepplin, or had more than one drink, or still had the unedifying girlfriend.

Literature allowed an escape from these habits of concealment . . . I still remember the adolescent thrill, that sublime discovery of the novel and the short story as utterly free spaces, where anything might be thought, anything uttered. In the novel, you might encounter atheists, snobs, libertines, adulterers, murderers, thieves, madmen riding across the Castilian plains or wandering around Oslo or St. Petersburg, young men on the make in Paris, young women on the make in London, nameless cities, placeless countries, lands of allegory and surrealism, a human turned into a bug, a novel narrated by a cat, citizens of many countries, homosexuals, mystics, landowners and butlers, conservatives and radicals, radicals who were also conservatives, intellectuals and simpletons, intellectuals who were also simpletons, drunks and priests, priests who were also drunks, the quick and the dead.

– Creativity: How Not To Win Friends and Influence People:

Staw says most people are risk-averse. He refers to them as satisfiers. “As much as we celebrate independence in Western cultures, there is an awful lot of pressure to conform,” he says. Satisfiers avoid stirring things up, even if it means forsaking the truth or rejecting a good idea.

Even people who say they are looking for creativity react negatively to creative ideas, as demonstrated in a 2011 study from the University of Pennsylvania. Uncertainty is an inherent part of new ideas, and it’s also something that most people would do almost anything to avoid. People’s partiality toward certainty biases them against creative ideas and can interfere with their ability to even recognize creative ideas . .

All of this negativity isn’t easy to digest, and social rejection can be painful in some of the same ways physical pain hurts. But there is a glimmer of hope in all of this rejection. A Cornell study makes the case that social rejection is not actually bad for the creative process—and can even facilitate it. The study shows that if you have the sneaking suspicion you might not belong, the act of being rejected confirms your interpretation. The effect can liberate creative people from the need to fit in and allow them to pursue their interests . . .

Staw says a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.

Self Doubt, Creativity’s Handmaiden:

The problem is that the inner critic is actually an indispensable element of any writer’s working life; it is the immune system, the necessary resistance against the toxicity of bad writing. Excessive self-doubt is therefore like a sort of autoimmune disease, caused by an overactive and overpowerful inner critic: the cure becomes the condition.

A few years back, the journalist and essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan spoke in an interview about the effects his work as an editor of other writers has had on his own writing. It made him more exacting, he felt, more ruthless when it came to his own prose. But the danger, he continued, “is you go too far with that, and you can’t write, because the critical voice is just so powerful from the very beginning, it smothers what you want to say. You’re trying to light matches in a rainstorm of self-doubt. Writing has to believe in itself as it’s happening.”

– How I Write James McBride:

What does a good writing session entail for you?

I still write my first 20-30 pages longhand. Then I move to the computer, or I’ll type it—I still use a typewriter, too. I used to use a typewriter a lot more. I needed it early in my career. The computer makes you rewrite and just hit the “insert” key. The insert key is deadly for a writer. You really have to push forward, know you’re going to discard and rewrite everything. Man, I rewrite everything. Even emails I rewrite.


– David Lynch on Photography