By Catherine Woodiwiss 8-30-2016

Try this on: You’ve been assigned to cover a handful of Trump rallies, across middle America, in the spring. Like most, you're equal parts fascinated and repulsed by the rage of the election season — what started as abrasive, if sidelined, detours through anger and hatred increasingly resemble a vengeful clown car hurtling through the heart of the country, and you want to find out why, and who is supporting this ugliness, and what could possibly have gone so wrong. The last thing on your mind, probably, is how to be kind.

Unless you’re George Saunders.

In the last few years, George Saunders — author of multiple award-winning short story collections and novellas, regular writer for the New Yorker and elsewhere, and professor at the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University — has become synonymous with at least two words: “kindness,” perhaps best distilled in his moving, widely read commencement address at Syracuse; and “brilliance,” a word you suspect he’d never apply to himself, but doesn’t need to — a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” did that in 2006, for his “mordantly hilarious tales…[with a ] slightly skewed, vaguely futuristic version of American society.” (The praise has been consistent: A 2013 New York Times profile recalls David Foster Wallace once declaring Saunders the “most exciting writer in America.”)

It’s this spirit of generosity, cloaked in the dark humor and melancholy of his stories, that has made him something of a guru to younger writers. A practicing Buddhist, with a childhood in the Catholic Church, Saunders approaches his essays in particular with a spiritual frankness — comfortable with his own limits, humble about what confounds him, and ready to tell the truth as faithfully as he can. 

In July, he published his months-long attempt to understand Trump supporters and how they came to invest so much in a highly divisive, unconventional candidate. When he mentioned this project at the Festival of Faith & Writing in Grand Rapids, Mich., in April, he was met with excited “oooh”s: Saunders seems both a natural and a jarringly wrong fit to capture this election season. Perhaps the writer best ready to chronicle the already-absurd, and the one most willing to take it seriously, Saunders — at this moment in 2016 — may also be a kinder national narrator than we deserve.

This email conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Catherine Woodiwiss, Sojourners: You've talked about writing as an act of kindness — how the process involves finding compassion for your characters. What was it like to write about Trump, a real person who offends so many sensibilities? Is kindness harder to achieve with real people as characters than with fictional ones?

George Saunders, writer: I think it’s basically the same game, although with a public figure like Trump I think you are bound to consider the public persona rather than the private one. At least that was the case with that piece of writing.

And “kindness” can mean a lot of different things. In this case, I felt I had to present his supporters in as fair a light as possible — many of them hadn’t been interviewed before and that entailed some interviewer-courtesy in the editing and so on. It also involved (again, in the editing) an attempt to withhold judgment for as long as possible and edit out some early dismissive asides on my part that were there primarily to signal allegiance to my liberal friends. So to hold off on those things and dig a little deeper — try to be more specific, actually look closely at what the Trump supporters had said, rather than at what I wish they’d said — made the piece, in theory, more rhetorically sound and compelling.

In my case, when I am trying to be “kind” I often default in a sort of toothless loving-all stance that is, actually, not kind, because it is not truthful. The challenge on this piece was to revise long enough that I started to tell my truths, even when those were critical. I’m not a natural criticizer — I prefer to like and praise and so on.

So I think there’s a danger of confusing kindness with (mere) niceness. My understanding of kindness is that we are hoping to be truly beneficial in every situation, and that this desire means a whole suite of things: being nicer, sure, but also being more aware, more present, more articulate, more fearless, less habituated, etc., etc. And sometimes even being firm, or having an edge, or even being angry. This is why I think kindness is a sort of gateway virtue — having that simple aspiration can get you into deep water very quickly — in a good way.

Woodiwiss: At the Festival of Faith & Writing in April, you spoke about your upbringing in the Catholic Church and how the Mass introduced you to mystery and deep longing. Elsewhere, you’ve mentioned your respect for Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor — maybe one of the most viciously kind writers there is. How did your childhood in the church help you shape and articulate what is good and kind in your own stories? And do you see this toothy kindness in religious traditions or religious people today?

Saunders: The main thing a childhood in the Church did for me, I think, was set up the universe as a moral system. Once you've seen it that way, it always seems that way. And then, as you mention, being in church so often, spending those hours sitting in front of a highly symbolic array of objects, hearing those beautiful texts — it teaches a kid that there are important truths beyond the literal ones, and that we have ways to access those truths that are, let's say, super-rational. And then of course there was the second wave — when you start to see that the human representatives are flawed (I once saw a nun and priest French-kissing in the sacristy, for example). So all of it was very rich.

As for "toothy kindness" — I think all traditions are full of this sort of tough kindness. If someone is on a wrong or dull path, and someone else startles them into awareness of that, then that's a blessing. And the method by which the startle is obtained might be anger, or satire, or an intentionally applied indifference. But that is, of course, a fine line. All traditions are also full of meanness for the sake of meanness. And it is very easy for us to go, you know, “I am being cruel to be kind,” when really we are just … being cruel. Because it makes us feel big, or whatever. So to me that really would be the essence of kindness, to have one's awareness so developed and refined that you could tell just what was needed, and not do any more or any less, and maybe not even be aware of what you had done, except it would be a helpful thing because of how fully present you were. Well, as Aerosmith once famously said: Dream on.

I am not anywhere near that yet, and my go-to default is to try to be nice, which I feel does less harm in the long run than trying to be, say, assertive. If I am nice and maybe too passive, I find that easier to live with.

Woodiwiss: How much do current events shape your work? As our country plunges further into the surreal this election season, I'm wondering how that changes the limits or use of satire and fantasy. What's it been like for you to see the strange and unbelievable begin to happen in public discourse?

Saunders: I don't tend to work directly from life, except in trying to mimic or match the outlines of its insanity. In other words, when I live through something, I just try to say to myself, "OK, remember this — life is really this crazy or scary or beautiful or surprising — so try to 'get at' that in your stories." Or: that level of nuttiness is therefore “allowed.” So I might take from the current political chaos a desire to somehow reflect its essential qualities in a story — the blatant lies that get accepted with repetition; the way mass media seems to be agitating people en masse; the way, particularly, that a relatively lucky and affluent and privileged population can be undone by a certain spoiled quality; that feeling when two decent people violently disagree, because they are arguing from two non-intersecting data sets — well, the list goes on.

But the idea is that what an artist lives through should broaden his notion of what it is possible for a human being to live through, and that new understanding should then get into and expand the work.

So: I am trying to remember that things have certainly been crazier in human history and they may get crazier here and now, and (here I am trying to be optimistic) it's even a good thing, to be going through all of this, if only to be reminded that history hasn't stopped — human existence is as fundamentally unmanageable now as it ever was. (See — don't you feel reassured? Me neither.)

Woodiwiss: Not really! Though … that may be about the best we can try for.

You wrote recently of learning to see power as serving a higher aim of generosity — “as if that is the point of power: to allow one to access the higher registers of gentleness.” In your writing and practice of kindness, what else have you learned about power? And what writers or public figures, if any, do you see as embodying this gentle form?

Saunders: Well, I guess I'd just say that truth is power and vice versa. Whatever happens, we can deal with it if we admit that it's happening and so on. So to be comfortable with what is — that is a real superpower. That entails a sort of fearlessness — the notion that a person could be comfortable with (even interested in) whatever arises. I sure can't do it, but I think all of us have had little glimpse of that power, often when we are really actively loving someone or something and feel that little eradication of self that happens when we are engaged in feeling protective or especially fond of someone else. So it exists, that feeling, and is possible. I associate that feeling with a corresponding clarity of purpose and a disappearance of confusion.

As far as which writers embody this form of gentle power — Tobias Wolff, for sure. His persona and his writing both share an easy, capacious confidence that says he has faith in his readers. Toni Morrison seems to have a lot of faith in people — that's what I mean by gentle power, I guess: People who are comfortable enough with reality to allow other sorts of realities and other mindsets to just be, and then to regard these with real interest and joy (and the joy appears in the prose quality itself). I see this quality in the work of Chekhov, of course, and Tolstoy and really just about any great writer.

So ... I like this idea that an artist's job is to be interested in things as they are. And then rise to that occasion. In this sense, I sometimes imagine a great writer as a sort of God-surrogate: the writer is doing his or her human-best to emulate what God might think of is, if God was inclined to observe some human beings and present their activities in the form of a narrative.

Woodiwiss: One of my favorite essays of yours is the story about Ram Bahadur Bomjon, the “Buddha boy,” and how a trip around the world to see an inexplicable phenomenon scrambled your sense of what was up and down. How did writing that piece change the way you approach truth and clarity, in your life or writing? Did anything more develop on that story in the intervening 10 years?

Saunders: It really was something, to see him apparently living without food or water. Before I went on that trip I’d asked advice on it from a very wise person who I love and revere — basically trying to see if I was somehow disrespecting Buddhism by trying to write about it, and also looking for some grounding on what stance to take … and my friend said, “Well, why don’t you just go and see?” And I hear that in my head all the time now: “Why don’t you go and see?”

I think that trip was the first time I’d even seen something that made me think, or really feel: “Ah, I don’t know what’s really going on in the world — I think I do, and it feels like I do, but whatever is really going on is, de facto, beyond the scope of my comprehension — the best we can do is look for hints.” I’d known that intellectually before but that was the first time I really believed it viscerally.

There have been lots of developments around him but I haven’t followed it that closely. I know he fled that location (too many people coming to see him) and went to another, and was meditating in an underground bunker for awhile…

Woodiwiss: You’ve taught creative writing at Syracuse for nearly 20 years. What have you noticed about your current students' approach to writing and world-building — this "interest in things as they are" — compared with writers who were coming along before social and digital media?

Saunders: I'm not sure there's much difference, strangely. This might be because we are getting the best of the best — we have, typically, over 600 applications for 6 spots. So maybe, at that level, there is some cross-generational consistency of excellence.

Some of our writers are starting to incorporate elements of social media, etc. in the work itself, which is all for the good, I think — finding new ways of being poetic. The only thing I might have noticed (and this is pretty anecdotal) is that there is some tendency to need to be taught that 'writing is rewriting' — maybe more of a sense than was pervasive 10 years ago that the first or second pass of a story is sufficient. That is an idea that is easily dislodged, but I suspect it might have something to do with the turnaround time re: blogging and so on — this sense that there is some essential truth about a first draft that one runs the risk of "ruining" by coming back to it.

Woodiwiss: There’s certainly that sense on Twitter, where I think revision can be seen as shameful — admission of mistake, or, worse, bad or wrong thought. You're not a heavy social media user — is that a conscious choice, or do you see yourself joining in eventually?

Saunders: Yes, it’s a conscious decision. I used to joke about this but I’ve recently realized that I really believe it: I spent many years training myself to write very slowly for pretty good money. So the idea of writing really quickly for free offends me. What I mean by this, really, is that I’ve found that my first drafts are not so special. But the more I work on them, the better they get. They are more unique and defensible. So that makes me averse to jotting things down and sending them out, when I know that my only chance at any kind of depth or profundity is to linger within the story, trying to make it distinguish itself.

That said — I am not, of course, spending three months on these answers. But I’ve also found that trying to be active with social media changes my moment-to-moment perceptions. Instead of feeling, “What’s the deepest version of what’s happening here?” I start to feel, “How can I use (or “claim”) this?”

The bottom line for me is that life is short and art is long — and I don’t love the way that being engaged in social media makes me feel, or the way it seems to shape my thinking.

Woodiwiss: Say you write a follow up to your Trump story, this one about Inauguration Day (whichever candidate wins). What narratives at play in our country right now do you think will still be there in January? What would you most be looking for?

Saunders: One of the sad things about this political season is that it allows (requires) us to get behind our big "Liberal" or "Conservative" banner and forget, for a time, that the big problems in our country have been around a long time and have been batted back and forth, caused and exacerbated, by both sides, and are more spiritual or ethical than (merely) political.

I think the biggest single issue is income inequity and what this is doing to the good old "American dream." This and corporatism — this delusional idea that "shareholder value" outweighs everything else. The old and honorable American notion, that a person who works hard should be able to live in freedom and security, with dignity — seems to have taken on a secondary status. So: As long as the shareholder is served, sure, a person who works hard should, etc., etc.

But the shareholder being served has become a sort of necessary condition for … all sorts of things — there’s this sort of de facto assumption that for something to have value, it has to be economically self-supporting, or something like that — which imposes a very low ceiling on a culture. It’s as if we’re saying: “Yes, yes, we are for truth and beauty and freedom – well, as much as can earn its own way.” (We might look, for example, at the way the news is covered now, vs. fifty years ago. What is its main purpose now? Etc.)

Both Trump and Bernie got to this idea of the vanishing middle class sooner and with more passion than more mainstream politicians, and benefited from it. The difference, of course, is that Bernie understood this in a more compassionate framework, and talked about it in conjunction with a revitalization of another part of the American project, which is the notion that (really, really) we are all created equal, and that our laws and culture and action ought to reflect that.

So I think this is the other big issue that is not going away: Do we really believe that bit in the Constitution or not? I think we do. The demographics are changing — and so what? Citizenship is a question of certain agreed-upon values and that is that. Do we believe that? I think at heart we do. But all of this strife on the political front might just be the death throes of another set of (less-honorable) American beliefs, that have, at their core, the notion that equality is something the privileged group "gives" to those not so privileged — a reaching down, as it were. That is not correct. Equality has always been extant but some of us just didn't know it.

And this leads to race, another issue that is not going away. I've been reading about and writing about the Civil War period and it is so striking that slavery was never made right — Lincoln was killed, Reconstruction came along, and all of that inequity was frozen in place and carried forward rather smugly. So I think the burden is now upon us white people, to say that this systemic inequality offends us. It offends us because it is un-American, and puts our brother- and sister-Americans at risk, and puts upon them hardships too great to bear. I also think it's on us to investigate ourselves for any lingering sense that we are "giving" equality. We are not. It is already given. And not by us.

So other than that, I think everything is peachy.

Catherine Woodiwiss (@chwoodiwiss) is Senior Associate Web Editor at Sojourners.

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