Oct 20 • 1HR 6M

The Active Voice: George Saunders thinks you should watch your mind

In the first episode of a new podcast, Hamish McKenzie talks to George Saunders about harnessing ambition, avoiding social media, and the value of literature

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Hamish McKenzie
The internet is conditioning our minds and influencing the global consciousness in ways that we are only beginning to understand – and writers are on the front lines. In The Active Voice, Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie talks to great writers about how they are reckoning with the challenges of the social media moment, how they find the space for themselves to create great literature and journalism despite the noise, and how to make a living amid the economic volatility of the 2020s.
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A couple of days after I interviewed George Saunders for the first episode of this podcast, I caught up on some of his recent posts on Story Club, his writing-focused Substack. In “A Lost Speech, Found,” he wrote about rediscovering the script for a graduation speech he had given many years ago. The speech would earn him a reputation as “The Kindness Guy.”  

“If the question ‘How should I live?’ can be answered: ‘Live so as to minimize your regrets,’” he had said in that speech, “then I have to tell you: What you actually regret, when you’re older, is very simple: You regret the times you could have been kind, and weren’t.”

Saunders, one of the world’s greatest short story writers and winner of the 2017 Booker Prize for his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was certainly kind to me. We sat together at a lunch table under a tree in a Santa Monica park for an hour and half. George patiently answered my questions about how to live a good life as a writer when so many social and economic forces make it so complicated. We talked about modes of thinking and how to negotiate with one’s ego, and how he writes to tame his “monkey brain.” We talked about the trope of the starving artist, and what it takes to make a living as a modern-day writer. And we talked about the corrosive effects of social media, which in so many cases encourages and rewards the opposite of kindness. 

I can’t think of a better first guest for this podcast than The Kindness Guy. After the interview, George texted me to say, “Feel free to edit out any stupidity.” I couldn’t find any.

Quotes from the conversation

On being turned off by social media

I was briefly on Facebook with an author page and it made me uncomfortable. I did a close look at my reaction and it made me feel agitated. I also noticed I was posting so gingerly. I’m a defensive person. From my writing practice, I’ve learned that you can watch your reaction to something and then you can adjust, so when I watched my reaction to that little bit of social media, I just didn’t like it.

On holding on to negative comments

I remember, it’s funny, I had done this thing, there was a bookstore somewhere, maybe Denmark, that was failing and the owner said, ‘I’m going to try a Hail Mary to save my store.’ He solicited writers all over the planet to make a comic dictionary of common terms. He just sent you the terms and you made a joke, right? Then he made this beautiful [book], fine leather covers, lovely paper, and it actually saved the bookstore, so it was great. I proudly put that on my Facebook page. Of course, there were a lot of kudos. Good job. Then, somebody said, ‘Well, it’s sad about the leather.’ Of course that's the one I remember.

On the value of bad reviews

There was one bad review of some book, I don’t remember which one even, but it said something like, ‘Saunders writes better out of love than anger.’ At the time I thought, ‘Oh boy, you don’t know me.’ But then as the years passed, I’m like, god, that is so useful. That’s true. At times when I’m at a crossroads, I’ll remember that. Now it’s totally devoid of context. I don’t know who wrote it. It was in a bad review, but I don’t care.

On harnessing ambition

We have these words, narcissism, ego, justifiable artistic pride, and they’re all actually the same fluid. With my students, I tend to have to say, ‘I know you’re in this program because you’re wildly ambitious and maybe you want to be famous or known.’ You can see them squirming with the truth of that. Then I say, ‘No, just admit that, because that’s great fuel.’ 

On viewing the culture wars from a distance

It feels to me as an outsider that a lot of the culture wars actually only take place in that weird environment where you’re coming forward in your social media manifestation and I’m coming forward in mine. In those two, it’s almost like robots fight. If we get in person, something else kicks in.

On fighting for focus

Since I was about 15, all I wanted to do is be a short story writer, and it’s really hard. I didn’t know how hard. Even now, all these years later, it takes all my energy to do that, to be open to the world, to have new experiences, to read enough of the short stories to inform myself. I have become a fighter for that privacy, a fighter to make my life such that I can spend eight or nine hours a day on this pretty specialized form, and I know that’s going to make me happy.

On the power of observing your own mind

As you get older, it’s fascinating that you’ve been the prisoner of this mind and body all these years and had beautiful experiences and rough ones and at some point it’s like someone gives you the owner’s manual and goes, ‘Look, your mind is making all of this chaos and all this beauty. You might want to take a little minute and see what that thing is like from the inside.’ 

On noticing negative tendencies 

I noticed I have a very sarcastic nature, from the time I was a little kid. It’s also got a negative component where if I go into a situation, I always want to make fun of it. I don’t know why. It’s probably insecurity.

On fully realizing characters

I’ve got an email address for my university that’s open, so I hear all kinds of stuff. This guy, one time I did an event at Google and it was on YouTube and this guy wrote me, he said… ‘Hey, you motherfucker, you stupid shit, your ideas are insane!’ He had a great phrase, he said, ‘That whole event was cocksuckworthian.’ Wow, that is pretty good… I just wrote him back, I said, ‘Dear, blah, blah, blah, I just woke up, I read your thing, you fucked up my day. I’m a person, I’ve got a lawn, I’ve got a dog. Would you say that to me in person?... He writes back, ‘Dear Mr. Saunders, I was amazed to get a response from you. Also, I apologize, I didn't think you would read it. Also, I was drunk.’

On succeeding as a writer

So much of this artistic life, I think of it as self-gaming. You’ve got a chance to tell yourself all kinds of stories about what you’re doing. If you tell yourself the right stories, you become more positive and powerful. If you tell yourself the wrong stories, you don’t.

On positive thinking

My tendency was maybe the opposite, which was to always be pissing and moaning, to be grouchy about things and to intuit the harm. That’s a habit too. So why not have the positive habit as opposed to the negative one?

On knowing if you have it as a writer

If I looked at myself in my first year of Syracuse, you would not have thought that that guy could write a good story.

On the tough times for writers

I remember Toni Morrison saying once in an interview that when she was younger there was a place for a starving artist. It was understood that that was a noble thing to do and it was okay. I don’t know if that’s true anymore. It’s such a harsh economy.

On the value of literature

The only thing I would say is it’s too bad that the culture doesn’t respect the writing art enough to just make a space for people to fuck up for a few years. Yeah, it’s just a real problem. It is. Of course the culture eventually will pay for it. I think we’re paying for it now. If you say to a vital art form, like literature, ‘If you were any good, you’d be making money.’ And it goes, ‘Oh, sorry,’ it goes to the back of the room and sits in shame, then it doesn’t do its work. I think one of the things it does, and this is a little maybe facile, but it does make empathy. Good writing, good literature is a fantastic compassion training wheels. If you marginalize that, then you’re going to have a more shrill public conversation and you’re going to have a country where to try to understand the other is not an honorable thing to do. That’s a disaster.

On the value of slow takes 

This is one of the things that I appreciate about my little Substack experience so far, is that the community that we’ve built is not inclined to the quick take. They’re really thoughtful. I think partly that’s what we’re doing, is we’re saying let’s not do the quick take, we’re going to do technical analyses of short stories in a civil way. It’s just been beautiful. 

On committing to being happy

In honesty, aging is weird. I think when I was younger there was always a lot of future anticipation that could get under your depression and buoy it up. Well, as you get older, that’s not as handy. So I think I’m trying to be happy. I think it’s almost morally correct to try to be happy.


Show notes

The Active Voice is a new podcast hosted by Hamish McKenzie, featuring weekly conversations with writers about how the internet is affecting the way they live and write. It is produced by Hanne Winarsky with audio engineering by Seven Morris, content production by Hannah Ray and production support from Bailey Richardson. All artwork is by Joro Chen, and music is by Phelps & Munro.

Postscript

A thoughtful monkey studies his own brain, in the style of Rita Angus (via DALL-E)