The Writers We Thought We Were

Everyone shut up, Saunders is talking:

In my early thirties I saw myself as a Hemingwayesque realist. My material: the time I'd spent working in the oil fields in Asia. I wrote story after story out of that material, and everything I wrote was minimal and strict and efficient and lifeless and humor-free, even though, in real life, I reflexively turned to humor at any difficult or important or awkward or beautiful moment.

I had chosen what to write, but I couldn’t seem to make it live.

One day, serving as a note taker on a conference call at the environmental engineering company where I was working, I started, out of boredom, writing these dark little Seussian poems. When I finished one, I'd draw a cartoon to go along with it. By the end of the call, I had around ten of these poem-and-cartoon pairs, and because they weren't my "real" writing, I almost threw them out as I left work that day. But something stopped me. I brought them home, dropped them on the table, went off to see the kids. And then I heard, from back at the table, the sound of genuine laughter, from my wife, as she read those stupid little poems.

This was, I realized with a start, the first time in years that anyone had reacted to my writing with pleasure.

This is an extract from A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, Saunders’s book about writing that I won’t stop talking about, and it perfectly captures how I think about my own somewhat-idle-somewhat-stalled-somewhat-something writing career.

But hush! There’s more:

To put it another way: having gone about as high up Hemingway Mountain as I could go, having realized that even at my best I could only ever hope to be an acolyte up there, resolving never again to commit the sin of being imitative, I stumbled back down into the valley and came upon a little shit-hill labeled “Saunders Mountain.”

Of course this is upsetting because that shit-hill is a glorious, beautiful shit-hill that formed the ever so perfect novel Lincoln in the Bardo. But sure, okay. I’ll play along here, George. Yes. You indeed do suck.

I guess I’m not sure which mountain I climbed up before I realized I could go no further and had to turn back. Oscar Wilde Mountain? George Orwell Rock Formation? My writing from just a few years ago is excruciatingly dry, formal to a fault. It’s like a chap dressed up to the wrong party, wearing 13th century ballroom shoes to a skatepark. I was trying so damn hard to copy poor old Oscar and George back then—and it wasn’t until someone told me to stop writing manifestos that I bucked the trend.

Anyway, Saunders continues...

This is a big moment for any artist (this moment of combined triumph and disappointment), when we have to decide whether to accept a work of art that we have to admit we weren’t in control of as we made it and of which we’re not entirely sure we approve. It is less, less than we wanted it to be, and yet it’s more, too—it’s small and a bit pathetic, judged against the work of the great masters, but there it is, all ours.

What we have to do at that point, I think, is go over sheepishly but boldly, and stand on our shit-hill, and hope it will grow.

This is sort of how I see my writing contributions today; small, insignificantly tiny even, but mine.