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.

My Heart is Painted in Pixels

  • work in response to the following prompt for an advanced fiction writing class: In one page or less, write a story about desire or regret. —

“My Heart is Painted in Pixels”

They met each other only once ten years ago. That summer, she had one other friend in the city, but she despised relying on a single person for anything; nothing so sharply reminded her why like dropping by the happy hour alone at a bar after work. One such afternoon, she perched on a stool at Mona’s, a bar suggested to her by a sweaty woman on the summer subway. She was starting to feel like the coolness and carbonation of her beer might just make up for her loneliness when someone slid onto the seat beside her.

“No fucking way you’re 21.”

Her heart stammered. She was caught. But when she looked into his eyes, she saw them smiling. She squared her shoulders, playing at bravado. “I’ll have you know my brother is very artistic. And straight-up devious. Oh, and extra handy with a laminator.”

He bought her two more beers, but that wasn’t the reason she kept grinning and winding her index finger through a ripped hole in the knee of his pants and wrapping her ankle around his under the bar. She’d never talked to someone like that. Their banter was tag — a clever remark goading her to chase his with one better, one that could keep up with his full-throttled pace. Once, he balked, unsure of what to say, and they knew they were equally matched.

She was barely 18, so he felt guilty to do more than kiss, which was fine, because she was too scared to do anything else. She’d never even flirted with a guy who could grow a beard before. He got her number, and they never saw each other again.

She hadn’t expected their game to be infinite. For a month, which became a year, which became a decade, they spoke to each other of everything, but when he was in New York, she was in the South; when she was sitting at Mona’s, he was surfing California’s coast. Still, neither one forfeited the match.

This afternoon, she is on a business trip to the city. Her boss suggests they grab a drink at a bar whose name is the soundtrack to an acidic anxiety that clocks her. The moment she enters, she sees him, hunched over a neat whiskey, his favorite drink. His eyes look so different on a screen, she thinks. She slides onto the seat next to him and taps his left shoulder. “You’re it.”

The Futility of the Brake and Other Thoughts

This is how I listen to music: I discover a song, and it makes me feel. That song then becomes a staple in the playlist of my days, one of the fifty or so tracks that paint the color of my consciousness. The track stays on the playlist for as long as it makes me feel that thing. When that song is randomly called up on shuffle, I hear the weighty solitude, or the empathy, or the flirtation, or the silliness that is that song’s hue. Like myself, the playlist is in constant flux. With each passing day, I am an incrementally different person. It would make sense, then, that when I hear a new song whose pigment better matches who I’ve most recently become, I add it to the list; when a familiar favorite reaches my ears as I’m walking down Main Street, but I suddenly realize that its timbre is not quite right anymore, I remove it from the playlist, archiving it to my library, relegating it to memory and the jurisdiction of nostalgia.

The length of time it takes to complete my cyclical relationship to a song sometimes feels interminable, a certain song remaining relevant for years, or it can climax and conclude in a single day. I live my life like I listen to music, and Davidson is a song. It’s been the soundtrack to a host of experiences: connection, rejection, community, isolation, achievement, and heartbreak. As I enter the second half of my Senior year, I feel myself tiring of the tune and itching for way to weave some of its notes into my next new favorite.

I was sitting outside of Summit Coffee this afternoon, writing, engrossed in my task, when I heard some kid’s mom yell out to her daughter. The girl was riding her bike. She seemed a little bit wobbly — just learning. “Are you practicing your braking?,” the concerned mom called. “Do you remember how to stop?”

I responded to her in my head: Nope.


P.S. She also warned her kid, “Watch out for people!” We won’t get into that one right now . . .