George Saunders’s Buddhism as Literary Technique

Yesterday George Saunders, an overall deeply compassionate person in addition to a literary giant, came to speak at my school, Davidson College. He said many thoughtful things about kindness, the necessity of art in our current political climate, and humor. While I might return to some of his other compelling points, right now I want to talk about how George Saunders produces what he does.

Of immediate significance to me was when he mentioned that he thinks of his brain as divided into two identities: the writer and the reader. He claimed he is able to turn off the “writer” part of his brain in order to read the piece from a fresh, unbiased perspective. Because I have experience myself with writing, my ears perked up when he began to talk about this. I find it difficult (if not sometimes impossible) to read what I have written with fresh eyes that can detect rhythmic lags, jarring images, or incoherent events in the text. I get an odd, paralyzing case of myopia when reading my own writing, and often have to leave it alone for at least a few days in order to see it more clearly.

Saunders’s own writing is evidence that he has mastered the skill of reading with an unbiased eye. I attribute his mastery at least partly to his expressed interest in and devotion to Buddhism. He commented that Buddhism and meditation have helped shape his writing. I think that this ability to detach his biases and “writer”-self from the part that must read and edit his writing is, in part, a meditative — spiritual, even — exercise. To attribute his ability to read his work successfully to the practice of meditation, rather than to skill or innate talent, gives me confidence that I too might be able to one day do the same. That is, Saunders has provided me with tangible goal to improve my writing that seems attainable: meditation.

Saunders’s Buddhism and spirituality are the arguable sources of his believable characters; the people within his pages have personalities with strengths that equal their faults. His characters — for example, the father of the dead Emily from “The Red Bow” — are three-dimensional and distinctly human. This level of careful and attentive character-building is unbelievably difficult to achieve. He recognized in his talk that he considers all humans to be capable of encompassing all other humans (another nod to his Buddhism); he thinks that all people are able to accurately imagine what it is like to be another person. This is not just talk. Saunders, in constantly imagining himself in another’s position, hones both his compassion and his ability to creatively assume the life of another. This is why his writing, frankly, rocks.

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