Don’t Run From Who You Are: Writing Advice From George Saunders & Cheryl Strayed
I don’t know who said you should never meet your heroes, but I can’t help but feel that whoever it was probably spent too much time worshiping rap stars or professional athletes (I know they’re not ALL douches, but I’m extrapolating). Having had the great pleasure and privilege of meeting both George Saunders and Cheryl Strayed this year, two of my biggest literary heroes, I know that meeting people you admire isn’t always a letdown. Walking away from both experiences, I could not have been more delighted, or inspired.
In the unfortunate instance you aren’t already familiar, George Saunders is a renowned short story writer, whose recent book Tenth of December was hailed as “The Best Book You’ll Read This Year” by the New York Times. I look up to Saunders for his wholly original style and his unparalleled ability for mixing wit and imagination with piercing social commentary. For comparison, his talent is more enormous than Kanye West’s ego, or Nicki Minaj’s ass.
Cheryl Strayed is the author of the best-selling memoir Wild, and provider of the wise words of “Dear Sugar,” a fanatically followed advice column on TheRumpus.net, recently compiled into the book Tiny Beautiful Things. I admire Strayed for the raw emotion and honesty which permeates her writing; when you read her words, you feel as though you’ve handed her your heart and allowed her to cradle it in her hands (warning: she squeezes every so often). I guess you could say that Strayed does for your soul what Ryan Gosling does for your genitals, she’s that good.
Aside from sharing my undying adoration, Saunders and Strayed have some interesting ties, which merit writing about them in the same article. When Cheryl Strayed was getting her MFA at Syracuse, Saunders was one of her professors. Strayed has called Saunders “one of the kindest, most generous people [she’s] ever known” and “one of the best writers of all time.” Saunders has piled praise onto his former student as well, calling her “big-hearted, keen-eyed, lyrical, and precise.” It’s a mutual love-fest, and I’m obsessed. But more important for us, however, is their seemingly shared views on what it takes to become a great writer; views I found so encouraging and motivating that I wanted to share with all of you here.
In a writing workshop in Sonoma, California last month, Cheryl Strayed explained to a group of 300 guests, myself included, what got her into the writing game and how she managed to become so Wildly successful (I’m probably not the first person to make that pun, forgive me). Strayed spoke of her admiration for writers like Faulkner and Munro, saying: “These writers I loved pushed me to a new understanding of what it means to be human, and I wanted to be like them.” (Not unlike how everyone in that room was dying to be like her.)
The thing is though, you’re never going to become amazing at anything without first being… well, sort of shitty. Strayed put it more eloquently: “You have to surrender to your mediocrity, and just write. Because it’s hard, really hard, to write even a crappy book. But it’s better to write a book that kind of sucks rather than no book at all, as you wait around to magically become Faulkner.” Sadly, mere desire is never good enough when it comes to achieving anything – in writing, and in life. “No one is going to write your book for you,” she reminded us, “and you can’t write anybody’s book but your own.”
I will admit this notion seemed rather bleak at first. “Great,” I sat there thinking. “I basically have to accept the fact that I suck in order to not suck? Sounds like some depressing paradoxical bullshit to me.” But it’s not, and Strayed made that clear in what she talked about next.
“I’m not really a sports person,” she started, “but there’s that saying, ‘Keep your eye on the ball.’ I would imagine it’s easier to hit something if you’re looking at it, right? Well, in writing you have to keep your eye on the ball too, but some people mistake what the ball is. The ball is not the New York Times Bestseller List; the ball is not even publication. Your writing is the ball. Focus on writing your very best – your writing, and nothing else. Because no matter how brilliant your work is, there will always be some people who are going to hate it and tell you it sucks, so focus on making your work important to you, and at least to some people, and that’s perfectly good enough.”
This same mentality seemed to pervade George Saunders attitude toward writing too, and made me wonder if “surrendering to your mediocrity” was the uniting first step for all successful writers. In the discussion segment of a reading and book signing to promote Tenth of December in San Francisco a few months earlier, Saunders spoke of his own desire to be just like the writers he respected, referring to them as his idols. Saunders talked about his failed attempts to emulate Ernest Hemingway, and of his discovery he wasn’t very good at being anyone but himself.
“You go up the mountain of your idol,” he explained, “but when you get to the top, you realize they’re already there, and that mountain is never going to belong to you. So, you go do your own thing and it’s more of a shit-pile than a mountain at first, but it’s yours. It’s your shit pile. And that’s not nothing.”
Saunders followed this up by encouraging us to think about our “natural modes” in order to infuse our writing with our own unique energy. For example, think about how you are when you’re hanging out drinking in a bar with your friends. Are you a naturally funny person? Then maybe it would be easier for you to write something humorous rather than trying to force yourself to pen some verbose, elitist, nihilistic manifesto because you think that’s more ‘legitimate’ for some reason. “You can’t run from who you are,” Saunders said. “Not your brain, not your inclinations, or your experience. So accept your shit – run toward it, use it.”
After the Q&A, I waited in an hour-long line to meet Saunders and have him sign my copy of Tenth of December, which ended up paying off with even more words of encouragement. I introduced myself, handed him my book, and as he opened to the title page to sign, he asked me, “So, are you a writer?”
I couldn’t help it, my mind immediately flashed to the first article I ever had published, entitled “5 Things You Can Do In A Public Restroom” (where Cry, Masturbate and Do Drugs all made the list), and so I replied to this winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant, “Umm, sort of?”
He chuckled. “You know,” he said, “I only ever get two responses to that question: ‘No’ and ‘Umm, sort of.’ People are always so hesitant to make that declaration, ‘I’m a writer.’” I laughed in agreement and relief, as he finished signing my book. Upon handing it back to me, he said with a kind smile, “Don’t worry, you’re a writer. You are.”
I immediately died, sprouted wings, flew out of the room and up into heaven, where I am writing this article from now.
And so, my fellow aspiring-literary-superstars, if Cheryl Strayed’s advice boils down to “surrender to your own mediocrity” and Saunders’ advice is “go with your natural mode,” then my advice will be this: if you write, be brave enough to call yourself a writer, out loud and not just in some dark corner of your brain. It reaffirms what you’re here to do, what you love, what you’re working for, and what you should be doing instead of watching all those cat videos on YouTube (I just had to force myself to deactivate my Wi-Fi in order to finish this conclusion, I feel your collective pain). Because if Genius George Saunders says I’m a writer, then you sure the fuck are too, and I want us all to achieve greatness together.
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