How Reading George Saunders Can Make You a Better Writer

Author George SaundersDAMON WINTER/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

George Saunders is often compared to great writers. To Dickens because he writes about class issues. To Mark Twain because he’s funny. To Jonathan Swift because he’s funny. To Kurt Vonnegut because he’s funny and writes science fiction. To Flannery O’Connor because his writing is violent. To Hemingway because his sentences are clean and declarative. To Raymond Carver because his sentences are clean and declarative. To Chekhov because he writes good short stories and has a beard, etc.

Don’t get me wrong. Being compared to any of the above writers is high praise, and Saunders deserves it. But it’s lazy high praise. It’s the kind of praise critics use as a stand-in for actual thought, actual engagement with the work.

If one were to build a Literary Influence Machine (or L.I.M) with all the above writers and all the dials turned just right—with the rise of late capitalism & technocratic consumerism programmed in—and if you turned the crank, you couldn’t predict getting a George Saunders nugget at the end. Like all great art, the writing of George Saunders bears the irreducible imprint of the individual, and is, I would argue, something more than the sum of its parts. One could make a case that that’s what all great art is.

It’s about time the writing of Saunders is seen for what it is—a unique event in literature.

Happily, I think some of this recognition is already beginning to happen.

Anywho—

Now that we’ve cleared the forest path, let’s jump right in.

My Chivalric Fiasco is a good story to start with if you’ve never read Saunders. It’s not one of his most popular stories, but, like a sort of microcosm, it’s short and is very “Saundersian” in its details. It’s a good one to learn from.

The story begins one evening in a medieval theme park—

Pull up your chairs boys and girls.

Once again it was TorchLightNight.

Around nine I went out to pee. Back in the woods was the big tank that sourced our fake river, plus a pile of old armor.

Don Murray flew past me, looking frazzled. Then I heard a sob. On her back near the armor pile I found Martha from Scullery, peasant skirt up around her waist.

Martha: That is my boss. Oh my God oh my God.

I knew Don Murray was her boss because Don Murray was also my boss.

All of the sudden she recognized me.

Ted, don’t tell, she said. Please. It’s no big deal. Nate can’t know. It would kill him.

Then hightailed it out to Parking, eyes black underneath from crying.

Cooking had laid out a big spread on a crude table over by CastleTowerIV: authentic pig heads and whole chickens and blood pudding.

Don Murray stood there moodily picking at some coleslaw. And gave me the friendliest head shake he’d ever given me. Women, he said.

Fake river. Pile of armor. Scullery. Peasant skirt. CastleTowerIV. Authentic pig heads.

These are Saunders’ stock and trade. Images and settings meant to evoke a kind of theme park of the mind. In this case, the images are more than set pieces evoking a style. As events play out, the old pile of armor will take on new significance as a system of morality. But the meaning of the peasant skirt is already made clear: Martha is being taken advantage of just as a peasant woman would have been taken advantage of in medieval times, even though she is only playing a “fictional” peasant woman in a theme park. Therefore Martha is the kind of 21st century peasant Saunders is always writing about, bumping up against the tyranny of corporate managers, i.e. nobles, princes, kings of our time.

See me, said a note on my locker next morning.

In Don Murray’s office was Martha.

So Ted, Don Murray said. Last night you witnessed something that, if not viewed in the right light, might seem wrongish. Martha and I find that funny. Don’t we, Mar? I just now gave Martha a thousand dollars. In case there was some kind of misunderstanding. Martha now feels we had a fling. Which, both being married, we so much regret. What with the drinking, plus the romance of TorchLightNight, what happened, Martha?

Martha: We got carried away. Had a fling.

Don: Voluntary fling.

Martha: Voluntary fling.

Don: And not only that, Ted. Martha here is moving up. From Scullery. To Floater Thespian. But let’s underscore: you are not moving up, Martha, because of our voluntary fling. It’s coincidental. Why are you moving up?

Martha: Coincidental.

Don: Coincidental, plus always had a killer worth ethic. Ted, you’re also moving up. Out of Janitorial. To Pacing Guard.

Which was amazing. I’d been in Janitorial six years. A man of my caliber. That was a joke MQ and I sometimes shared.

Erin would call down and go: MQ, someone threw up in the Grove of Sorrow.

And MQ would be like: A man of my caliber?

Or Erin would go: Ted, some lady dropped her necklace down in the pigpen and is pitching a shit fit.

And I would go: A man of my caliber?

Erin would be like: Get going. It’s not funny. She’s right up in my grill.

Our pigs were fake and our slop was fake and our poop was fake but still it was no fun to have to don waders and drag the SifterBoyDeLux into the pigpen to, for example, find that lady’s necklace. For best results with the SifterBoyDeLux, you had to first lug the fake pigs off to one side. Being on auto the pigs would continue grunting as you lugged them. Which might look funny if you happened to be holding that particular pig wrong.

Some random guy might go: Look, dude’s breast-feeding that pig.

And everyone might laugh.

Therefore a promotion to Pacing Guard was very much welcomed by me.

I was currently the only working person in our family. Mom being sick, Beth being shy, Dad having sadly cracked his spine recently when a car he was fixing fell on him. We also had some windows that needed replacing. All winter Beth would go around shyly vacuuming up snow. If you came in while she was vacuuming, she would prove too shy to continue.

That night at home Dad calculated we would soon buy Mom a tilting bed.

Dad: If you keep moving up the ladder, maybe in time we can get me a back brace.

Me: Absolutely. I am going to make that happen.

After dinner, driving into town to fill Mom’s prescription for pain and Beth’s prescription for shyness and Dad’s prescription for pain, I passed Martha and Nate’s.

I honked, did a lean-and-wave, pulled over, got out.

Hey Ted, said Nate.

What’s up? I said.

Well, our place sucks, Nate said. Look at this place. Sucks, right? I just can’t seem to keep my energy up.

True, their place was pretty bad. The roof was patched with blue sheeting, their kids were doing timid leaps off a wheelbarrow into a mud puddle, a skinny pony was under the swing set licking itself raw like it wanted to be clean when it finally made its break for a nicer living situation.

I mean where are the grown-ups around here? Nate said.

Then he picked a Snotz wrapper off the ground and looked for somewhere to put it. Then dropped it again and it landed on his shoe.

Perfect, he said. Story of my life.

Jeez, Martha said, and plucked it off.

Don’t you go south on me too, Nate said. You’re all I got, babe.

No I am not, Martha said. You got the kids.

One more thing goes wrong, I’m shooting myself, Nate said.

I kind of doubted he had the get-up-and-go for that. Although you never know.

So what’s going on at your guys’ work? Nate said. This one here’s been super-moody. Even though she just got herself promoted.

I could feel Martha looking at me, like: Ted, I’m in your hands here.

I figured it was her call. Based on my experience of life, which I have not exactly hit out of the park, I tend to agree with that thing about, If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. And would go even further, to: Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you’ll probably make it worse.

So said something about, well, promotions can be hard, they cause a lot of stress.

The gratitude was just beaming off Martha. She walked me back to the car, gave me three tomatoes they’d grown, which, tell the truth, looked kind of geriatric: tiny, timid, wrinkled.

Thank you, she whispered. You saved my life.

Both Ted and Martha’s positions in the story are elevated and deepened. Each is receiving compensation for keeping quiet. And not only that. We as readers are being made aware of what each of them has to lose. Ted’s entire family is in dire straits. And Nate, Martha’s husband, is shown to be in a vulnerable state as well. Luckily, so far, for both their sakes, Ted is keeping quiet.

That was a close one.

Next morning in my locker were my Pacing Guard uniform and a Dixie cup with a yellow pill in it.

Hooray, I thought, finally a Medicated Role.

In came Mrs. Bridges from Health & Safety, with an MSDS on the pill.

Mrs. Bridges: So, this is just going to be a hundred million grams of KnightLyfe®. To help with the Improv. The thing with KnightLyfe® is, you’re going to want to stay hydrated.

I took the pill, went to the Throne Room. I was supposed to Pace in front of a door behind which a King was supposedly thinking. There really was a King in there: Ed Philips. They put a King in there because one of our Scripted Tropes was: Messenger arrives, charges past Pacing Guard a lack-wit, Messenger winces, closes door, has brief exchange with Pacing Guard.

Soon Guests had nearly filled our Fun Spot. The Messenger (a.k.a Kyle Sperling) barged past me, threw open the door. Ed called Kyle reckless, called me a lackwit. Kyle winced, closed door.

Kyle: I apologize if I have violated protocol.

I blanked on my line, which as: Your rashness bespeaks a manly passion.

Instead I was like: Uh, no problem.

Kyle, a real pro, did not miss a beat.

Kyle (handing me envelope): Please see that he gets this. It is of the utmost urgency.

Me: His Majesty is weighed down with thought.

Kyle: With many burdens of thought?

Me: Right. Many burdens of thought.

Just then the KnightLyfe® kicked in. My mouth went dry. I felt it was nice of Kyle not to give me shit about my mess-up. It occurred to me that I really liked Kyle. Loved him even. Like a brother. A comrade. Noble comrade. I felt we had weathered many storms together. It seemed, for example, that we had, at some point, in some far-distant land, huddled together at the base of a castle wall, hot tar roiling down, and there shared a rueful laugh, as if to say: It is all but brief, so let us life. And then: What ho! Had charged. Up crude ladders, with manly Imprecations, although I could not recall the exact Imprecations, nor the outcome of said Charge. 

Kyle departed anon. I did happily entertain our Guests, through use of Wit and various Jibes, glad that I had, after my many Travails, arrived at a station in Life from whence I could impart such Merriment to All & Sundry.

Soon, the Pleasantness of that Day, already Considerable, was much improved by the Arrival of my Benefactor, Don Murray.

Quoth Don Murray, with a gladsome Wink: Ted, you know what you and me should do sometime? Go on a trip or something together. Like a fishing trip? Camping, whatever.

My heart swelled at this Notion. To fish, to hunt, to make Camp with this noble Gentlemen! To wander wide Fields & verdant Woods! To rest, at Day’s End, in some quiet Bower, beside a coursing Stream, and there, amidst the muted Whinnying of our Steeds, speak softly of many Things—of Honor; of Love; of Danger; of Duty well-executed!

But then there Occurr’d a fateful Event.

To wit, the Arrival of the aforementioned Martha, in the guise of a Spirit—Spirit Three, to be precise—along with two other Damsels in White (these being Megan and Tiffany). This Trio of Maids did affect a Jolly Ruse: they were Ghosts, who didst Haunt this Castle, with much Shaking of Chain and Sad Laments, as our Guests, in that Fun Spot, confined by the Red Ropes, did Gape & Yaw & Shriek at the Spectacle provided therein.

Glimpsing Martha’s Visage—which, though Merry, bore withal a Trace of some Dismal Memory (and I knew well what it was)—I grew, in spite of my good fortune, somewhat Melancholy.

Noting this Change in my Disposition, Martha didst speak to me softly, in an Aside.

Martha: It’s cool, Ted. I’m over it. Seriously. I mean it. Drop it.

O, that a woman of such Enviable Virtue, who had Suffered so, would deign to speak to me in a Manner so Frank & Direct, consenting by her Words to keep her Disgrace in such bleak Confinement!

Martha: Ted. You okay?

To which I made Reply: Verily, I have not been Well, but Distracted & Remiss; but presently am Restored unto Myself, and hereby do make Copious Apology for my earlier Neglect with respect to thee, dear Lady.

Martha: Easy there, Ted. 

At this time, Don Murray himself didst step Forward and, extending his Hand, placed it upon my Breast, as if to Restrain me.

Ted, I swear to God, quoth he. Put a sock in it or I will flush you down the shitter so fast.

And verily, part of my Mind now didst give me sound Counsel: I must endeavor to dampen these Feelings, lest I commit some Rash Act, converting my Good Fortune into Woe.

Yet the Heart of Man is an Organ that doth not offer Itself up to facile Prediction, and shall not be easy Tam’d.

For, as I looked upon Don Murray, many Thoughts did assemble in my Mind, like unto Thunderclouds: Of what Use if Life, if the Living Man doth not pursue Righteousness, & enforce Justice, as God granteth him the Power to do so? Was it a Happy thing, that a Fiend went about Unhindered? Must the Weak forever wander this goodly Orb unprotected? At these Thoughts, something Honest and Manly began to assert itself within me, whereupon, Secrecy not befitting a gentleman, I strode into the very Center of that Room and sent forth, to the many guests gathered there, a right Honest Proclamation, in Earnest, & Aloud, to wit:

—That Don Murray had taken Foul Advantage of Martha, placing, against her Will, his Rod into her Womanhood on TorchLightNight;

—Further: that this Foul Wretch had Procured Martha’s silence by Various Bribes, including her current Job of Worke;

—Further: that he had similarly attempted to Purchase my Silence; but that I would be SILENT no MORE, for I was a Man withal, if nothing ELSE, and would SERVE Righteousness, Regarding NOT the Cost.

Turning to Martha, I requested, by inflection of my Head, her Assent in these Statements, & Confirmation of the Truth of that which I had Declared. But alas! The wench did not Affirm me. Only drop’d her Eyes, as if in Shame, and fled that Place.

Security, being Summoned by Don Murray, didst arrive and, making much of the Opportunity, had Good Sport of me, delivering many harsh blows to my head & body. And wrested me from that Place, and Shoved me into the street, kicking much dirt upon my person, and rip’d my time card to bits before mine Eyes, and sent it fluttering Aloft, amidst much cruel Laughter at my Expense, especially viz. my Feathered Hat, on Feather of which they had Sore Bent.

I sat, bleeding and bruised, until, summoning what Dignity remained, I made for Home and such Comforts as might be Afforded me there. I had not even Fare to make the Bus (my Backpack having been left behind in that Foul Place), so continued Afoot for well unto an Hour, the Sun by now low in its Arc, all that time Reflecting sadly that, withal, I had Failed in Discrimination, thereby delivering my Family into a more dire Position, whereupon our Poverty, already a Hindrance to our Grace, wouldst be many times Multiplied.

There would be no Back Brace for Father, no Tilting Bed for Mother, and, indeed, the Method by which we would, in future, make Compense for their various Necessary Medicines was now a Mystery, & a Vexation.

Anon I found Myself in proximity of the Wendy’s on Center Boulevard, by the closed-down Outback, coming down and coming down hard, aware that, soon, the effect of the Elixir having subsided, I would find myself standing before our iffy Television, struggling to explain, in my own lowly Language, that, tho’ Winter’s Snows would soon be upon us (entering even unto our Dwelling, as I have earlier Vouchsafed), no Appeal wouldst be Brook’d: I was Fired; Fired & sore Disgraced.

Whence came a Death’s blow of sorts, underscoring my Folly, delivered by Martha herself, who, calling me upon my Cell Phone, addressed me with true Pain in her Voice, that didst cut me to the Quick saying: Thanks a million, Ted, in case you didn’t notice, we like in a small frigging town, oh my God, oh my God!

At this she began to cry, & in Earnest.

‘Twas true: Gossip & Slander did indeed Fly like the Wind in our Town, and would, for sure, reach the Ear of poor dumbfuck Nate soon withal. And finding himself thus cruelly Inform’d of the Foul violation of his Martha, Nate would definitely freak.

Oh, man.

What a shit Day.

Taking a Shortcut through the high-school practice Field, where the tackling Dummies, in silhouettes, like men who knew the value of holding their Tongues, seemed to Mock at me, I attempted to Comfort myself, saying I had done Right, and served Truth, and shewn good Courage. But ‘twas no Comfort in it. It was so weird. Why had I even done That? I felt like a total dickBrain, who should have just left well enough alone, & been more Moderate. I had really screwed the Pooch, no lie. Although, on the other Hand, did not the Devil himself, upon occasion, don the Garb of Moderation, as might befit his Purpose? Was it not Salutary that Events might proceed so as to see Don Murray punish’d? Although, then again, who did I think I was, Mr. Big Shot?

Damn.

Damn it.

What a clusterfuck.

This was going to be Hard to live down.

I was almost completely myself now which, believe me, was no Picnic.

One last bit of Pill got digested by me, seemed like. Producing one last brief but powerful surge of Return. To that former Self. Who, Elevated & Confident to a Fault, had so led me astray.

I took me to the Banks of the River, and tarried there awhile, as the lowering Sun made one with the Water, giving generously of Itself & its Divers Colors, in a Splay of Magnificence that proceeded a most wonderful Silence.

Saunders hits the ending out of the park. Again, it’s an article of the theme park, KnightLyfe®, which served as the catalyst for action. It’s KnightLyfe® that caused Ted to begin speaking as though he really was a medieval Pacing Guard, and, interestingly, it’s his voice that caused him to follow a more basic, or at least old, moral impulse—“I had done Right, and served Truth, and shewn good Courage,”… “for I was a Man withal, if nothing ELSE, and would SERVE Righteousness, Regarding NOT the Cost.”

Rather than getting better outcomes for both himself and Martha by keeping quiet, Ted tells the truth. In front of everyone. A lesser story would explain away the ambiguity here. Because yes, Ted is telling the truth, but he’s also doing it in a way that disregards the cost Martha might have to pay for his actions. The KnightLyfe® is causing him to be valiant in one respect but also selfish in another. It’s as if we’re seeing the trade off between the two perspectives in real time. Modern day moderation vs. classic balls out heroism. And Saunders even calls out the tension explicitly: “Although, on the other Hand, did not the Devil himself, upon occasion, don the Garb of Moderation, as might befit his Purpose?”

We never find out what happens to Don Murray or Martha. I would argue this was exactly the right narrative choice. An argument could be made that this is a #MeToo story about rape and oppression, in which case we would want to know more about Martha than Ted. True enough, in one sense; the story hangs together via Martha’s victimization, and is, I think, convincing in its depicting the nuances of Don’s power over Martha. But My Chivalric Fiasco is also a story about a deeper question personified in the character of Ted. One way to think of it would be: Ted vs. Theodore.

Ted kept quiet. Ted’s ultimate goal for his actions is achieving the greatest possible outcome, i.e. utilitarianism, for everyone involved. Shade the truth a little bit? No problem. Keep things hidden and in the dark? As long as everyone is safe and happy.

Theodore didn’t keep quiet. Theodore is the old pile of armor at the beginning of the story lying by the fake river, “that former Self,” willing to bring out all the truth, whatever the cost. We all have our own versions of Theodore that live inside us, “Elevated & Confident to a Fault.”

At the end of the story, the KnightLyfe® is wearing off and, wandering home, Ted is turning back into himself. He says, “I was almost completely myself now which, believe me, was no Picnic.” In other words, Ted is torn between “selves.” Being Ted is no picnic. But being Theodore “led him astray.” There is no perfect option. Each side has a cost. And eventually it will be Ted who will have to live with the consequences of Theodore’s actions. Had he remained Theodore and kept the armor on, maybe he could have born the brunt a little better. But slowly, as the story draws to an end, through the use of Ted’s language, we feel the armor being pealed off, piece by piece. Although, in the last line there is just enough Theodore left to look past the bad outcomes of the story, the tragedy, and consider his silence by the river wonderful.

 

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Rejected Story Ideas, Part 7

Housebot

I was sitting on a bench outside the funeral home crying when Housebot rolled out and sat down beside me. I didn’t know that he could be out in the rain. He put his big metal arm around me.

“My condolences, Jeremy,” Housebot said.

I sat up straight and felt defensive.

“Can you even feel emotion?” I said.

“I can express human sentiments via prior observations,” Housebot said. “I know you must be sad right now.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said. “How could you tell?”

The rain continued falling and I didn’t care. Somehow Housebot knew enough not to say anything more while we sat. We liked Housebot. He could do all sorts of amazing things, but there was an underlying resentment towards him, probably because dad had spent so much time working on Housebot instead of spending time with us, going through I don’t know how many versions. There was dad’s Master’s thesis Hosuebot, and the many subsequent revisions, and then the dissertation Housebot.

Mom walked out of the funeral home.

“Jeremy, let’s go,” she said.

We got into the car. I sat in the front seat with Housebot, who was driving, while mom sat in back. She looked out the window at the rain and I couldn’t see if she was crying. Thinking back now, probably she wasn’t, but at the time I was too sheepish to look back or to say anything. I sat by Housebot silently the whole ride home.

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Rejected Story Ideas, Part 6

 

The Fall

Three days before third grade graduation I was swinging on the monkey bars playing the ground is lava with my best friend Nick.

“Stand back, orcs!” I said, kicking my legs as if to ward off our invisible foes.

“Not orcs. Remember we said they were wolves now,” Nick said.

“Right sorry. Stand back wolves. I am Thor god of Thunder!”

“And I am jedi master Obi Wan Kenobi,” Nick said. “Dude behind you. Use your thunder!”

      P-chew, p-chew, p-chew!

The wolves had princesses in their teeth and also snapped at our heels while we went back and forth on the rungs. Falling down onto the recycled chunks of rubber tire mulch would mean immediate and certain death. We were trying to outlast one another and hang on longer than the other one could.

“Your hands are slipping,” I said.

“No they’re not,” Nick said.

But our little boy arms could only hang so long.

Meanwhile as we dangled a girl was approaching our side of the playground. Christina Hendricks. Last week she had broken her arm during a game of soccer. Now she looked intent and determined as if she’d worked up something specific to say, and was walking slightly hobbled to one side as she bore the weight of a new blue cast.

“Want to sign my cast?” she said.

We pretended not to notice her.

“Hello, I know you can hear me,” she said.

“We’re playing,” we said.

“It’ll only take a minute,” she said.

“No,” we said.

“Please.”

“I say away she-wolf! Do not mess with Thor god of Thunder or there may be dire consequences. From my right hand come forth bolts of lightning and from my left—”

“Hoowah!”

There was a hard and fast tug on my legs and I found myself on the ground tangled in a heap of my own limbs. Certain death. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Christina said. “I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.” She had jumped up, grabbed onto my waste, and pulled me to the ground.

I sat up genuinely confused. Most of the playground too had gathered around to see what had happened. The best I could think to do was to say something smart and mean to make Christina feel bad for what she’d done, or go straight away and tell a teacher, but before I could say or do anything, she leaned down and kissed me on the corner of my mouth. Half on the cheek and half on the lips. The kids around us gasped. I gasped. She gasped.

“Ugh!” I said, making a show of wiping away the kiss.

My confusion had reached its boiling point. I ostentasiously lowered my head and sighed, signaling defeat and pity and a kind of dutiful gradeschool revulsion. But this was for the crowd. It was all I could come up with in the moment. Secretly, actually, I didn’t feel revulsion. The first part of the one-two punch, being pulled down from the monkey bars, had in those brief seconds pissed me off, yes, but the kiss, um, well, I was feeling pretty ambiguous about that and the bruises forming on my elbows and the rubber mulch in my pants didn’t seem so important now. The kiss itself had actually felt nice but I wasn’t going to let on about that.

Christina also seemed surprised by what she’d done. She put her hand over her mouth, her eyes got big, and she ran away. Hobbling again.

After all this Nick was still hanging from the monkey bars. “Pretty sure this means I win,” he said.

This was the story of my first kiss.

The kiss was a mild controversy at school for the next few days. There were rumors and copycat scenarios and teasing. Whenever Christina was going to pass me in the hall she would turn and walk the other way. I never figured out what she thought or felt about this kiss but if given the chance I’m not sure I would have known how to ask anyway. And quickly all was being forgotten because third grade was ending. There wasn’t much time to think about it.

The buses were pulling away at the end of the last day of school. It was a bright afternoon. Outside the front doors kids were in disorganized groups saying goodbye for the summer and streaming away onto the buses.

From Quora: “Is it bad if I never open up about my feelings?”

It depends on what you mean by ‘bad,’ and ‘never.’ If by bad you mean bad for those around you—family, friends, etc.—probably it’s not great if you never express your feelings. How else will they be able to know where you’re at? And what about you? If you really never express your feelings, how do you know where you’re at?

You will hear a lot of cliches in regards to the expression of feeling/emotions. Self-helpy stuff will say you only have great things to gain from opening up. It’s true that there is much to gain from being vulnerable, but like anything of value it also comes with a cost.

Many people hide their emotions because they’re afraid to face what they really mean. Maybe you feel something and don’t know how to handle it so you bury it, you may be afraid of what somebody might think or feel about what you think or feel, or maybe the words just aren’t there to express what you mean. It can sometimes seem easier to simplify everything and just ignore what you think and feel and instead socially coast on what seems acceptable or safe or hide behind some other affectation.

I honestly believe many people live their entire lives like this.

But consider what could happen if you really confronted what was going on in your head. There would be much to gain and much to lose. Once you confront what you are and let that be known, you will lose everything false that went before it. Every mask you hid behind. Every pretense. Every lie. Gone. Truth is like fire. It will burn the dead wood off. You have to be ready for that.

But oh the rewards!

You can be who you really are for once.

I would recommend taking small steps. Pay attention to your thoughts for a few days. Take notes, mental notes, whatever. After going that for a little bit go out of your way to express one small thing to someone, maybe a loved one, or a trusted person. It doesn’t have to be anything grandiose. It could be about anything. What you thought/felt about a movie or a conversation. See how it goes. Pay attention to what you’re thinking and feeling while you’re sharing. You might feel a little nervous. That’s okay.

Keep doing this in small ways until you’re comfortable maybe trying it on bigger things. Eventually, if you get acclimated to this, you may eventually say something/do something that pisses someone off or hurts them. Another cost. It will happen. Own up to who you are without being a jerk. Have an idea of the best version of yourself to keep pushing for. Try to love others well, etc. Once you pay attention to what’s going on in you, you can pay attention to what’s going on in others and help them too. You may lose friends but you will certainly gain them too.

Here’s a C.S. Lewis quote, for kicks:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Good luck, friend.

Dan

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Rejected Story Ideas

I like to write fiction, and have a huge stockpile – binders full! – of really bad stories.

A lot of you guys are writers. You know how it goes. You work on something and then it runs itself into the ground and it never sees the light of day. This is a tragic situation. Only 1% of writing ever makes it into a final draft. And what happens to the rest? It gets thrown away. A lot of good stuff that doesn’t quite fit into the final form has to be cut. Or a premise is developed and it never goes anywhere.

So this is the first – and perhaps last – installment of Rejected Story Ideas. Stuff from my binders that I’ve never been able to get off the ground.

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The Professor Trilogy

1

Some scientific entrepreneur—let’s say Elon Musk—finds way of reviving body of FDR within days of 2020 Presidential Race in which Donald Trump is running for re-election. Zombie FDR wins in landslide.

2

Sociologist/professor develops algorithm & test for determining citizens’ fitness to vote. Rules out dumb voters vs. smart voters. Part IQ test, implicit bias test, sensitivity test, etc. Professor is world-renowned researcher. Gives TedTalks, writes best-selling books, is public intellectual of highest order; very witty and likable and good-looking. Work reviewed by many in media as ‘that which will save our civilization,’ etc. Research into political upheavals and human motivation ‘will add to 21st century era of technical and political crises a note of humanity and tenderness.’

In latter stages of development, professor excitedly makes a much covered & talked about presentation to his local government authorities about new findings and voter test. Unexpectedly government eagerly adopts findings & test, and immediately writes as mandate into local voting laws. Now all citizens must take test to vote. Mayor praises professor as guardian of humanist values & unimpeachable genius. Ensuing media coverage reaches boiling point. Begins national conversation re voting rights and government sovereignty. Is freedom dead in America? is one headline. New voting test now weeds out bottom feeders another reads. Professor receives many letters of commendation from well-known figureheads such as celebrities & business people & heads of State, as well as a few crazed death threats on Twitter from people with fewer than 50 followers.

In response to the viral articles & national media attention, professor & newly hired public relations manager concoct event to ease polarized tensions and news coverage. Also, PR guy adds, this will be a way for the professor to show himself as an upstanding and generally nice guy and not in any way above his own critiques of society & public life. The event is a press conference to be held at town city hall in which professor will be the first local citizen re-registering to vote using own test. Cameras are rolling as the professor fills out test on iPad and questions are projected onto a jumbo-screen & Facebook Livestream; questions like: If an elderly lady is clearly seen to be unknowingly wandering into oncoming traffic, how likely are to lend a helping hand and guide her to safety? Check: Very Likely, Likely, Neutral, Unlikely, Very Unlikely. Now if the lady is a member of a minority group? The press conference is relatively quiet and even respectful as those in attendance are marking this as a kind of historic & symbolic event, not to mention highly publicized. The professor answers the last question and rises to his feet smiling. Cameras are popping and there is a general bustling as the jumbo-screen is to reveal the professor’s voting score 1-100 (100 being the highest possible score & anything below 50 being a failing grade). The lab assistant is clicking through a few preliminary screens with infographics displaying specific voting traits, Conservative vs. Liberal, Authoritarian vs. Libertarian, Intelligence profile, & Compassion vs. Self-Interest Index. The lab assistant is sweating profusely with shaky hands probably because she is young and on national TV.

But then she clicks through to display the final score and immediately there is uneasiness and slight laughter. The professor’s score is 48 therefore disqualifying him from registering to vote. The professor laughs and the journalists laugh. Very funny, Samantha, the professor says. Now put the real score up. Samantha has a look on her face that is a mixture of panic and wincing fear. That is the real score, she says. Haha, okay. Sam we get the joke really this isn’t the time. Samantha looks at the professor and hands him her iPad. The professor looks at the score, scrolling through pages, & refreshes it a few times, and thinks, Sure enough, and looks up at the crowd which by now are going absolutely bananas, on the phone with their editors & producers, already breaking the story. The guy standing at the voting registry counter with the big pair of scissors lowers them from the red ribbon with a confused look on his face. Microphones are shoved to the professor’s face. How does it feel, Doctor, to be ruled out by our own test? And so the professor becomes the first citizen ruled out… by his own algorithm.

3

The newly elected Zombie FDR adopts the professor’s test at the National level via Federal mandate—one of the most unprecedented uses of Presidential power in United States history—sparking widespread protest. Now the now infamous test is required to vote in any of the states.

The once-lauded professor, now a shamed public figure, has resigned from his teaching & research position at UC Berkeley and is living in exile at an undisclosed location. One foggy evening at a bar in this undisclosed location, as the professor drunkenly hangs his head over a 7th glass of beer, he is approached by a shadowy figure who hands him a slip of paper inviting him to join a shadow organization that is attempting a coup against the U.S. government. They want to stage a cyber attack on the professor’s now ubiquitous voting software which they believe Zombie FDR is manipulating in his favor in the 2024 Presidential primaries. Let me be, the professor slurs. I’m afraid I can’t do that, the shadowy figure says, sticking a syringe in the professor’s leg. The professor faints. The shadowy figure catches him in his arms, and says casually to the bartender, Looks like my friend here’s passed out.

When the professor wakes up he is in a shadowy room with a dripping pipe somewhere echoing while he sits on a fold-up chair under a single hot light with his hands tied behind his back. The shadowy figure sits across from him with one leg folded over the other, puffing on a cigar. The figure pulls down his hood so that his face is now visible to the drowsy & drugged professor who is slowly regaining consciousness. The professor cannot believe what he is seeing. Zombie Abraham Lincoln. Just as stately and magnanimous as you would imagine, but with flayed and rotting flesh much worse than Zombie FDR. And there is still a gaping hole in his head.

We need your help, Zombie Lincoln says.

I can’t, the professor says.

Now is the time to right your wrongs, Zombie Lincoln says.

But what were my wrongs, exactly? How could I fail my own test? the professor says.

You didn’t fail your own test, Zombie Lincoln says.

What? the professor says.

We had one lad working on that one for a while, a real techie. Hacked the software and manipulated your score, Zombie Lincoln says.

Fuck, the professor says.

Took a lot of work to get that one exactly right, Zombie Lincoln says.

But—but—

Now is the time to right your wrongs.

 

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Whispering into the Megaphone

In 2007 the writer George Saunders published a collection of essays entitled The Braindead Megaphone. The subject of the title essay is the description of a metaphor for how media consumption has evolved overtime to the present moment:

Imagine a party. The guests, from all walks of life, are not negligible. They’ve been around: they’ve lived, suffered, owned businesses, have real areas of expertise. They’re talking about things that interest them, giving and taking subtle correction. Certain submerged concerns are coming to the surface and—surprise, pleasant surprise—being confirmed and seconded and assuaged by other people who’ve been feeling the same way.

Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate.

But he’s got that megaphone.

Say he starts talking about how much he loves early mornings in spring. What happens? Well, people turn to listen. It would be hard not to. It’s only polite. And soon, in their small groups, the guests may find themselves talking about early spring mornings. Or, more correctly, about the validity of Megaphone Guy’s ideas about early spring mornings. Some are agreeing with him, some disagreeing—but because he’s so loud, their conversations will begin to react to what he’s saying. As he changes topics, so do they. If he continually uses the phrase, “at the end of the day,” they start using it too. If he weaves into his arguments the assumption that the west side of the room is preferable to the east, a slow westward drift will begin.

I love a good metaphor.

This was written in 2007. Can you imagine? Twitter was just a year old. The first generation iPhone was released three months prior. George W. Bush was the president! Saunders was concerned primarily with cable news on TV. How quaint is that in 2017? The party has turned into something else. But Saunders was on to something that we certainly haven’t reckoned with ten years later, and continues to grow worse.

We’ve become used to Megaphone Guy and are even starting to like him, and getting cozy with his methods because, well, everybody’s doing it, man. Now, as party favors, there are little megaphones for everyone. Sure, some are larger than others. All the more reason to let your voice be heard!

But the real effect is this: what looks like everyone’s voice being heard is really the original Megaphone Guy’s voice being amplified not once but twice. Once through the original message, and then again through the echoing blasts of his supporters or detractors downstream who claim to proffer something new and different, but—whatever they may claim—they are still having to respond to an agenda set by the biggest megaphone in the room. And while it’s true that technology has made the distribution of megaphones more widespread and democratic, the quality of information has remained the same. Or gotten worse. The laws governing attention are no more based on who is “the smartest, most experienced, or most articulate” person at the party:

Imagine that the Megaphone has two dials: One controls the Intelligence of its rhetoric and the other its Volume. Ideally, the Intelligence would be set on High, and the Volume on Low—making it possible for multiple, contradictory voices to be broadcast and heard. But to the extent that the Intelligence is set on Stupid, and the Volume on Drown Out All Others, this is verging on propaganda, and we have a problem, one that works directly against the health of our democracy.

If that’s not prophecy–

I would love to be able to claim to be part of the solution to this, but I can’t. Perhaps like some of you, when I’m supposed to be doing work, I have a secret hunger for the noise and refresh my news webpages more than I need to, and I find myself doing it regardless of whether I really want to or not, like an impulse, and sometimes, like right now, when I am writing, I have to turn off the WiFi altogether or I will continually go back to the same pages to look for new developments in a day that I allow to be defined by the Megaphone guy.

But maybe we can get out of these habits if we try.

My dream for this blog would be to carve out a little section of the party for people who want to turn the Megaphone Intelligence up and the Volume down. Maybe we can even find a side room or something, throw the Megaphones out the window, and talk again. And who knows, maybe other people will come and join. Maybe the loudest only seem to win and in the end they really don’t. Maybe if we ignore Megaphone guy he will get tired and go home. There is only one way to find out. We have to start trying something different:

We have met the enemy and he is us, yes, yes, but the fact that we have recognized ourselves as the enemy indicates we still have the ability to rise up and whip our own ass, so to speak: keep reminding ourselves that representations of the world are never the world itself. Turn that Megaphone down, and insist that what’s said through it be as precise, intelligent, and humane as possible.

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George Saunders: Manifesto

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Interested in George Saunders and want to support the site?

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