#7: Tobias Wolff & George Saunders 2016

Throw the Door Open, March 3, 2017

Talking on stage together for the first time, fiction writer and essayist George Saunders and his literary mentor, Tobias Wolff, describe the origins of their friendship and their shared love for Chekhov. Scholar Sarina Moore moderates the discussion, which ranges from literary influences, to the importance of particularity, to finding ways to stay open to a story’s possibilities, to writerly disciplines. Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and George Saunders.


  • Anton Chekhov,
    • About Love
    • Gooseberries”
    • The Lady with the Dog
  • George Saunders,
    • Lincoln in the Bardo
    • The New Mecca
  • Tobias Wolff,
    • In the Garden of the North American Martyrs
    • “Hunters in the Snow
    • “In Pharaoh's Army
    • “Winkfield”




Lisa Ann Cockrel: [00:00:00] Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I'll be your host. This is the place you can listen back to conversations we've had with writers and readers as we've celebrated the written word together for over two decades. In each episode, you'll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.

Our sponsor this week is Eerdman's Publishing, which has just released a new book from Russell Rathbun titled, The Great Wall of China and the Salton Sea. What can Madame Mao's Gang of Four, the Great Flood, the Tower of Babel, and other monumental missteps teach us about human ambition and mind of God? Find out in Rathbun's wise and cheeky post-modern Midrash, The Great Wall of China and the Salton Sea, available wherever books are sold, including eerdmans.com.

Today's episode of Rewrite Radio is a little different. It features a short on-stage conversation between Tobias Wolff and his former student, George Saunders, and it took place after Saunders’s keynote at the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing. As a professor of Creative Writing, Tobias was a major influence on George when the younger writer did his MFA at Syracuse. George now teaches at Syracuse himself, while Tobias recently retired after finishing his teaching career at Stanford. George has called Tobias "an American master, one of our very best short-story writers," and Tobias has called George "one of the luminous spots in our literature for the last twenty years." Needless to say, we were delighted and honored to host their first public dialogue about their work.

Moderated by Sarina Gruver Moore, the conversation covered how writers situate themselves within a creative lineage, the dangers of abstractions, and the ways Catholicism and Buddhism influence their writing. To introduce the conversation, I caught up with George just as he was getting ready to go out on the road to promote his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, and we talked about Tobias and their time together at the festival.


[music, phone ringing]

George Saunders: [00:02:00] Hello.

Lisa: Hi George, it's Lisa.

George: Hey Lisa, how are you doing? Good to hear from you.

Lisa: Where did we catch you in sort of a mental state? Where are you today?

George: Pretty good, I'm literally getting packed. I've got all my stuff out, and I'm leaving in about--let's see, when am I leaving? Well, we go to San Francisco on Sunday, and then right from there I go to Philadelphia, and it's like 20-straight cities or something. So it's kind of a new level of touring, so that'll be kind of fun.

Lisa: That's super fun. I'm hoping to catch you in Chicago at the Music Box.

George: Oh good, good. Yeah that should be a good one.

Lisa: Yeah.

George: That should be a fun one.

Lisa: Well, and Lincoln in the Bardo is such a kind of wonderfully strange story. Can you describe the basic conceit and say how you started to come up with it?

George: So basically, the book came out of this thing that I heard about twenty years ago. We're in D.C. with my wife and our daughters and my wife's cousin, and she pointed out that the place where Willie Lincoln had been buried. At that point I'd didn't even know who that was, but she told me that he was Lincoln's son, and Lincoln had been so grief-stricken that he actually went into the crypt at one point and had some kind of interaction with his son's body. That just stuck in my mind all those years. So the story is basically all set on one night, and it's the night on which Lincoln goes to the crypt. And that's kind of it, that's really all that happens--he goes to the crypt, and then he leaves [laughs].

Lisa: And yet so much more happens.

George: [jokingly] It's a five-page novel, very understated.

Lisa: Right. [laughs] "Novel," quote-unquote, in a Saunders way.

George: Yeah, I mean that was it. Then, as you hope happens with a work of art that you're undertaking, the simple premise got complicated, as you start to figure out what's the best angle through this stuff and how can I represent this in a way that seems new. For me, the whole [inaudible] is a little bit unusual in that usually I just start a short story. I don't know what it is, and I don't care, I just go. I have no endpoint. In this one, I had a little bit of a pull-start where, whenever I would get a little confused, I'd think--this is a story about love, a father's love for his son, that's it, and it's that moment that I heard of at the beginning.

So, that was kind of interesting to be steering toward that a little bit, and my hope was to make any innovations or weirdness in it somehow be subjugated to that emotional goal. So I didn't want to particularly be fancy or even be funny for the sake of it; I just wanted everything to serve that purpose. That was kind of a cool, almost like a mantra that you keep in mind. When in doubt, I kept a picture of Willie and Abe Lincoln on my desk. I would just look up at those two and go--okay, I'm remembering that you're real people; I'm not trying to make a literary punch line out of you.

Lisa: [00:04:53] Yeah. That comment you said about not even trying to be funny intentionally here, reminds me of something you said at the Festival. It was almost a bit of an aside, and I've listened to this interview you did with Lew Klatt a couple times. You talked about how you, at one point, had aspired to be more like Hemingway with this kind of stoic reserve--

George: Yeah.

Lisa: --on the page, and you came to a point where you realized--whatever animates your work on the page is going to be part of what animates you in real life.

George: Right.

Lisa: And for you, that's the funny guy that cracks people up in real life, that was going to need to come out on the page in some meaningful way. And you said this thing, you said--let's see if I can get the quote right--“...it's easier said than done to accept who we really are and make art out of that.”

George: Yes.

Lisa: And I wondered--and this will turn us to talking about Tobias Wolff and kind of your writerly education--when did you get to that place where you started to accept who you really are and make art out of that?

George: Well the first part, never yet, actually I’m still kind of in denial about that--[laughs]. But there was a specific time in my life--we had our daughters--they were babies--and I was working as a tech writer up in Rochester--and I had been writing these kind of Hemingway-esque stories, where I had this one novel that was kind of like James Joyce goes to Mexico or something, but always keeping the humor out of it.

I kind of got a little panicked; I was in my early thirties, and nothing was really happening. I could see that it was going to take extraordinary measures to change my life and make it more centered on art, and not just be a tech writer. So there was kind of a catastrophic thing, a series of things. I had written a big novel that I gave my wife to read, and she was absolutely right, it wasn't good. It was sort of ponderous, and that hurt. Then I went into work not long after that, in an almost elated stage of despair, like--"Okay, like what the heck is going on?"

And I was off-handedly making these little cartoons, you know, and writing poems, like Doggerel type poems. I was just killing time while I was on a conference call. I brought those home, and she really had a positive reaction to them. She'd laugh, you know. That kind of threw a little door open in my mind. At the same time, my best friend had read some of my stuff and there was a story I'd written about seven years before that was a little bit like my first book would turn out to be--funny, a little funny. And he said to me, in a moment of candor, which you can only get in a best friend, "This is better than anything you've done in the last five years." So the door went up a little wider.

Somehow all those constructions I'd made in my mind about seriousness and being a solemn writer just got plushed. It was such relief. It was really like as if you'd been talking in a false voice your whole life, and suddenly someone just gave you permission to sound the way you sound. That was literally within a week, and I wrote the first story of what would become my first book, and it was a totally different mode--funny and loose and smart-outs and all that. That was just saying--"Well look, I use this set of charms in real life, why am I not using them in my writing life at all? In fact, why am I suppressing them?"

One of the symptoms of making that jump for me was this really wonderful sense of always knowing what to do. When I was faking it, I would always be, "I don't know, I don't know." I had no know idea--my taste was gone. So the decision making was done rationally, or you'd think, "Well, what did Hemingway do in this situation," or "WWHD" [both laugh]. So, then suddenly, in this new mode, I'd always knew what I'd wanted to do; I always knew what would be fun and what would be energetic. That's just a great relief, to get into that mode.

Lisa: Yeah, that's wonderful. I wonder if we could think back even a little bit farther. You talk about, in that New Yorker piece that you did, about studying with Tobias and at Syracuse in general and about getting that call from him at your parents' house in Amarillo. I wonder, back before that, what was it about Tobias's work that made you want to study with him and at Syracuse?

George: You know honestly, I think when I applied I knew a little, I hadn’t read him, actually I hadn't read Carver either, I had just heard about them, from a People magazine article. So I applied, and after I applied, I read some more. It was a long time ago, but I remember getting that call. I remember I also had been accepted to Houston, where Donald Barthelme was teaching, and I had a decision to make. And Toby called, and he was so charming, as he always is, and that was a big persuader. Then I went and just read the work.

I went and found a collection--In the Garden of the North American Martyrs--and there was one story in there called "Winkfield" that just blew my mind, and I just felt so in the company of a loving human being, and it spoke to me at that time so strongly, you know. Toby, I heard him one time say--someone was talking about this idea of experimental versus realist--and he said, "Well, every great story is experimental." In that story, you can see just what he means. It's experimental because it has to be to evoke the deepest possible emotion.

Lisa: [00:10:28] Well it was so wonderful to get to have you both on stage together at the Festival. That was such a surprise to realize at dinner before that evening that you guys had never been on stage together before.

George: We never had--well, the only time we had before was when I was a student--he was reading and I set up the PA, so I don't know if that counts but... [pause, laughter] ...for me it was wonderful just to sit there and listen to him because he is an incredibly wise person and I just love him. So, you know, to have an artistic mentor in your life who is so important, I think it's rare, and I think it's an incredible blessing. Even now, you know, we were friends and every time I'm with him I learn something and I am inspired. Actually, it's the best kind of learning because what I do is, I watch the way he relates to the world, and I adjust my posture accordingly. If I'm not sure how I should think about something or speak about it, I just look to him and he's an incredible role model for anybody. And, on top of all that, he's an American master--that's the other thing--you know? I always talk about what a wonderful guy he is but then you think, wait a minute, this is one of the greatest short story writers of all time.

Lisa: Right. Right, right, right. Well, thanks so much for your time.


George: Alright, well thank you guys very much!

Lisa: Safe travels.

George: Thanks, guys. Bye-bye. [hangs up phone]



Lisa: [00:11:47] And now, George Saunders and Tobias Wolff in conversation at the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing.


Sarina Gruver Moore: One thing we want to talk about tonight is the relationship between teaching and writing and that kind of teacher-student relationship, and I heard that, George, this is the first time you've shared a stage with Tobias.

George Saunders: It's true, yeah.

Sarina: Except for when you set up the microphone stand.

George: Yeah! There was a famous, we were talking about it before, Toby read [Anton] Chekhov's wonderful trilogy to us--“About Love” to us as we were students, and it was one of the big moments in our time at Syracuse. And when we got there, the guy didn't know how to set the mic up and I had been playing in a band, so that was my big coup for that year. [laughter] Yeah.

Sarina: That's a nice segue to my questions about Chekhov, actually. You've both mentioned Chekhov in the Festival, and one of my colleagues sent me this letter that Chekhov wrote his brother in 1886, in which he sort of spells out his manifesto for short fiction. I don't know if you're familiar with this; it is a list of 6 elements and I thought, well, let's just read these and I'd love to hear you both riff on those elements and where you take that. So the first is "absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature--"

Tobias Wolff: Disagree.


Sarina: Two: "total objectivity." Three: "truthful descriptions of persons and objects." Four: "Extreme brevity." Five: "Audacity and originality, and flee the stereotype." And six is "compassion."

George: Yeah, I would have to agree with those. You know, it's interesting, because I was thinking, as you mentioned Chekhov, that everything I know about Chekhov came directly from Toby. I had never heard of him before, or maybe I had read... maybe "Lady with Pet Dog" in Amarillo and thought I don't get it, it's boring. And then to hear Toby read Chekhov that night and then also to absorb some of the stuff in the workshop was, you know, is one way that lineage works--your love manifested sincerely, gets picked up by your students and even my way of thinking about writing comes from directly from Toby without even--well, he was the first writer I ever met, really. So I think that that's where these lessons come down beautifully in action and I know I can convey the exact same directly to my students. What else could I give them but what Toby gave me?

Sarina: In the kind of lineage of passing-on tradition.

Tobias: [00:14:41] Well, and I want to say too, that when George came into my workshop in Syracuse, he already had quite an interesting life. Most of the graduate students I was working with were very gifted writers, had taken a more conventional path to that workshop than George--they had been English majors in school and worked on the school literary journal and often came in pretty quickly from the school to the graduate program. George had gone to the Colorado School of Mines, he'd studied Engineering, he'd been a petroleum engineer in Sumatra, managed a motel in Amarillo just before he came to Syracuse, and he was also a musician--he plays a wonderful guitar, I wish you had it with you. We could sing "Helplessly Helping"--"Hoping"--which we have done--we have heard the chimes at midnight [laughter].

You know, when you have people like this in your workshop, and others would come in, you didn't feel so much as though you were teaching as much you were having a sustained conversation, really. And also benefiting greatly from their experience, their way of reading, so it's more collaborative. It wasn't a kind-of top-down thing, it doesn't work that way.

But, to get back to these precepts of Chekhov, they all sounded kind of good to me as you were reading them, and then each time I thought, "Nah," I can make an exception to that. For example, objectivity. Actually, some of the texts, some of the novels and stories that I most value are written--are rants even, you know? That novel of Frederick Exley's, A Fan's Notes, you're hard-put sometimes to even like the narrator, and he himself is lashing out at the world in all kinds of different ways, and yet he is absolutely there in his humanity. He doesn't always have compassion for others, but in some strange way, he compels compassion in you for him. So there's all kinds of different ways.

It's interesting--Chekhov, as you were reading that, and came to this passage about being objective, Chekhov almost never writes from the first-person. Actually, when you are writing from the first person, you are denied objectivity, you are in fact, by the very conditions of taking that point of view, are forced to be biased, and partial, and half-blind, and blundering, and all those sorts of things. I mean, think of our favorite narrators in fiction, you know? Nick Carraway, who can seduce us with his language, but the closer we look at that novel we see this someone who is really fooling himself deeply. And when he says that "I am the most honest man I know," you think, "Well, you're keeping bad company then, because you are an extremely--there are dishonesties in you that you are hiding from yourself." And Holden Caulfield--I mean, I could go on forever. So, it really depends on the kind of story you're telling and those things all work for Chekhov, but they're not for every writer.

George: I was thinking too that, you know, in the teaching game, and any type of public-speaking game, you do develop some shtick--what you should and shouldn't do, but when I teach at Syracuse, I always say that there's a big set of parentheses around this semester, and basically put a footnote on and says me, that these are the excesses that I've learned to work with, given my personality and my flaws, and so on, and you're going to have to go out and make your set of shtick and you're going to learn how to work with your own excesses. I think part of what we do in writing education is that you have to go in and, what else do you have to give them but your own weird version, and to some extent it will help some of them a little bit. So this talk of revision and cutting, some students are really helped by that, and some are shut down by it. I always try to give a healthy dose of disclaimer and then say now I'm gonna hit it hard and you're gonna think I know what I'm talking about, but keep a little bit of skepticism because your set of attributes are going to be totally different from mine.

Sarina: It struck me, George, as you were talking, just now, and also Toby, as you were talking about Chekhov, and language, and kind of distortions of language, you both share an interest in distortion of language and in particular, language that would seem to be good, but is used for bad purposes. So, I'm thinking, George, at the end of "Extortion," when you have a sort of quote of Julian of Norwich--[paraphrasing] "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all shall be well," and it's a falsity. And Toby, I was thinking about in "In Pharaoh's Army," you talk about how you knew Vietnamese enough to be sort-of like a seven year old, right. But with this kind of fierce, military vocabulary added to it. And both are these good things that have these distortions to them, that turn them into bad uses of language. So I wonder if you could talk a bit about that preoccupation that you both share.

Tobias: [00:20:33] Yeah, one of the essays that really meant a lot to me when I came across it when I was younger was something an English teacher of mine had me read, of Orwell's, and it had to do with political language, and the debasement of language through politics. It's the same sort of thing that Hemingway in Farewell to Arms when he talks about, essentially, saying that words like honor and glory and country have lost their meaning for me--now what means something to me is the date that a friend of mine died or the river that he died in, the particulars. The longer I've lived, the warmer I've become to that advice. We live in particulars, and I think that a certain kind of person is very good at manipulating abstractions and getting people to--conjuring up some illusory, beautiful, past that we can return to--and we've seen it happen again and again, not just in this country, but everywhere. You can trace the poison to the language.

George: I was thinking in a sort of neo-liberal, materialist town like ours where there are big forces working against particularities and dearnesses of the heart. The euphemism becomes a very, very fast flowing stream. I remember working at this corporation and getting the first taste of it. Email was new, and I think we only emailed with our corporate office, in Austin. We were a little branch office in Rochester. We would get their gossipy corporate emails, but we didn't know the people involved, so we didn't really need to read them. But one of them was sort of like, "Those of you in the Austin office may have heard certain rumors should be assured that the rumors were not intended for you to hear. And if you haven't heard it, please disregard this email since it's not relevant to you." [laughter] "But the talk you have heard of a company becoming smaller and thus more efficient are at this time not merited." And you thought, you know, who are you? When you're called upon to lie, we can do it. It's easy to lie, and language is the golden ticket. It's fun--it's a funny thing to do, also.

Sarina: I'm thinking about that word "abstractions" that you used, Toby, and George, we were talking a little bit earlier about how conceptualization and concepts can become these barriers to particularity. I mentioned, just sort of bringing together Buddhism language and Christian language here, which is part of what this conversation is about--Gregory of Nyssa, who was this fourth century bishop, and he says that "Concepts are idols, it's only wonder that brings us to understanding." I think about both of your work, it brings us to wonder, and particularity, and not concepts, which I find so refreshing and instructive. I wonder George if you might read a little bit at the end of "The New Mecca" essay, which I have. I have it marked here. Because you talked about specifically about--

George: I don't have it memorized. [laughter]

Sarina: Right, but I do have it here. But you talk specifically--this is George's essay on going to Dubai and seeing the stately pleasure houses of all of that construction there--

George: I went to Dubai, and the thing was, I got paid pretty well by a magazine, and so in that anxiety I had written the story before I went, basically, in my head, and it was gonna be a story of the big exploitive masters in Dubai, running rough-shod over the little guy, which is true, but also there were so many other things going on and it was so beautiful. So this, I think I'm on the plane, flying home, and I say, "Just before I doze off, I counsel myself grandiosely: Fuck concepts. Don't be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen." But grandiosely! [laughter]

Sarina: It's interesting hearing you read it aloud, because it ends in a prayer, and you just read us a sermon, which is sort-of one of the best sermons I've heard, I feel like. How close are sermons to short stories? This is a tricky line, right? To not turn a short story into a sermon, and yet clearly there is such an instructive element.

George: [00:25:34] Well, we were talking about Chekhov and about the pieces that Toby read that night long ago, and there is one beautiful story called "Gooseberries" in it. I actually remember you reading this--there is a part where one of the characters is talking to his two friends and he says, "Every happy man should have an unhappy man in his closet [pause] with a hammer to remind him by his constant tapping that not everyone is happy and that someday life will show him its claws,"--something like that. And it's a beautiful--and this character is basically making a speech against the facile nature of happiness and how dangerous it is. It's a totally convincing speech, so a lesser writer leaves it at that. Well, earlier in the story, this same guy is shown taking a swim in this mill-pond, and he's loving it so much, and he's on his back and he's saying, "Oh God! Oh God!" And he loves it--

Tobias: --It's raining.

George: --And it's raining, it's raining, that's right. And his friends have to, "Come on, come on, get out of there!" You know? So now we have two beats of complexity: happiness is bad and facile, the happiest guy in the story is that guy in the pond. At the very end of the story, he continues to kvetch about this terrible tyranny of happiness, and he's sleeping in a room with a friend, and there is a nightstand between them, and the guy who's kvetching falls asleep, having spoken his piece. And his friend can't sleep, and the reason is the preacher has left his dirty pipe in the middle and he can't sleep for the bad smell. So Chekhov manages to make a great case for happiness being facile, a great case for happiness being all there is in the world, and makes a third case that this guy that's against happiness is thoughtless of other people's happiness, you know. So that's how a great story works. Your stories do this all the time--this almost holographic running around of a certain virtue and at the end all you can really say is, "Wow, yeah!"

Tobias: I love that memory of yours of "Gooseberries" with the guy in the closet waiting to hit you with a hammer in case you forget--it's a little like that wonderful line in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" when the serial murderer who calls himself "The Misfit" is about to kill this grandmother, having killed the rest of her family already, and she actually looks in his eyes and feels some compassion for him. And he can't stand that and shoots her, as he was going to do anyway, and turns to one of his confederates in crime and and says, "She would have been a good woman if it had been someone there to shoot her every moment of her life." Well, we'd all be pretty good people if there was somebody there. Well, it's why paintings, you know, of saints always have the skull, the memento mori, I mean, that sermon that man preaches in your story has great truth in it. Why do we think we're exempt? No. You know? It's in front of all of us, and it should tell us something about how we might spend our time here.

George: If in fact we are gonna die. [laughter]

Sarina: Toby, when you were talking about being shot, it made me think of your story "Hunters in the Snow," and George this afternoon you said that story was very important to you--that kind of rupture moment opened something up for you and I just wanted to ask you to talk more about that, again in this kind of like teacher-student, mentoring relationship and how the lineage of the story is passed along and the lineage of the craft and all of that.

George: One of the last talks I had with David Foster Wallace was about that story. I thought he had written about it but I haven't been able to find it. But he said that for writers of our generation, and particularly for him, that kicked open the door because up to that moment, there had been an opposition--there been the realists, there had been the kind of postmodern crazies, and David said and I agree that in that moment you see that those are not two separate tracks as long as a writer is dedicated to serving truth and emotion the tracks will cross. You told me one time, I had never forgotten this, we were talking about this and you said, "Well, every great story is experimental.” So I think that David was saying, for him, it almost relieves him of a burden. He thought the choice was be smart or be emotionally intense, and in that story he said no, that obviously you are experimental when you need to be emotionally intense, and that solves the riddle. Then Dave's work comes out of that, you know? Yeah, it's a good one. [laughter]

Sarina: [00:30:39] In addition to the experimental, you know I've been struck by how much discipline keeps coming up for both of you in terms of the practice, right, the craft. And then thinking again, tying this conversation back to faith, how spiritual practice is often about discipline, habit formation, and I wondered if you could talk a bit--each of you--about how spiritual practice and the of the craft of writing, the practice of writing, and the discipline element for both of those- how they exist in conversation for you, in your process, in, you know, the practice.

Tobias: George's wife is not in the audience tonight so he can lie--mine is, so I can't. There's somebody out there who knows all-too-well what my various disciplines are and are not. [long pause] My advice to others [laughter] is to write every day, and that's how the work gets done. I remember reading something that Nick Hornby, wonderful novelist, Fever Pitch, he wrote the screenplay for this beautiful movie Brooklyn out of Colm Tóibín's novel. And has written several novels--About A Boy is another one of his. And he said, you know, if you just write a paragraph every day, just a paragraph, by the end of a year-and-a-half or two years, you'll have a short novel. You know, he obviously writes more than a paragraph a day, and most of the writers I know do because they're also going over it and over it.

Problem is that writing is hard, I think it's hard, I've found it hard, and as George said this afternoon, and also affords moments of the most intense kind of life, and of a different kind of pleasure than anything else, but it's hard to attain those moments. You have to fasten yourself to the chair and accept conditions of solitude that, you know, if a judge sentenced you to it, it would get overthrown, it would be cruel and unusual punishment, you know? You have to sit there for 4 hours today and take semicolons out and put them back in. [laughter] But you have to do that, and you know, after that difficult approach to the work, after a while, if you're lucky, you can enter it.

I wish I had more to say about spiritual practice--for me I guess, my spiritual practice is to try to treat other people as I would wish to be treated, and to think of them as, as real as myself. And that is for me--what literature did for me when I was young that nothing else ever did quite, and that it continues to do is, I think, that most of us--without any ill intention--walk around in a kind of shallow self-absorption, and self-concern, and there's something about literature that wakes me up to the absolute adamant reality of other human beings. Once you apprehend that, and refresh your apprehension of that, that is, I mean, that is the basic thing we have to know. It's, first of all, it makes a demand on us, of course, but it also makes us realize we're not alone, you know? And so, I guess, if that is a spiritual practice I suppose that's the one I'm aiming toward.

George: [00:35:00] So beautiful. The only thing it strikes me to say is that I was writing before I got involved in meditation, and when I first started going to these retreats, I thought, I actually have been doing a form of this, and I think it has to do with, I guess it's a form of faith in the mutability of the text. So you come to the text with your notions, your concepts of what it is, and you have to have those, but then at the same time you're willing to have those overthrown by the actual energy of the piece. So what's happening is over the years you're developing a confidence in that space of possible overthrow, and what I've noticed is that seems to be fairly analogous to any moment of life, as well.

You know, you come to a party or you come to a Trump rally, or you come to whatever with a certain set of projections--of course you do, how could you not--but then in the moment the energy starts coming back at you, being willing to overthrow those ideas it is sort of a form of meditation. So that seems to me like that the basic thing I've learned from writing is don't give up hope. If you have an aversion to something you've written, that's 80% of the struggle to fix it. If, you know, something goes badly you can say, "Well, what is it?" And in a certain sense, writing even as obsessively and iteratively as I had has made me more hopeful about the ultimate workability of things if you have the patience to kind of hang in there. And also, if it doesn't work, not the end of the world, you know? That kind of hopefulness, I think is, yeah.

Tobias: Sarina, if I may, what was it that drew you to a life of studying literature [laughter] and then wanting to share that passion with us?

Sarina: --I didn't prepare any answers, I only prepared questions. That's not fair. [laughter] I found myself in books, I think, in a way that I didn't have words for at the time. I actually remember the moment I learned to read because I learned to read very late, at age six. See, now I do have an answer, actually! [laughter] I remember being in class, and the teacher was going around to ask children to read. I mean, some of you have had this experience before. And it was getting closer and closer to me, and I knew that I couldn't read, and it felt terrifying. And thankfully, it stopped before it got to me. But I learned how to read that night. You know, I went home and was like, "Okay. I gotta figure this out.” I realized this sort of power and the access to a whole world that I didn't have otherwise.

George: Junot Díaz taught for us at Syracuse for a while, and he said that he thought he could make a connection between people who ended up being writers and critics and people who early on had a lesson that language was power. So for him, and his family, he was the first English speaker and he was sent to buy groceries and negotiate, and that kind of makes sense.

Sarina: Well this is a beautiful conversation, but we need to wrap it up and get on to book signing, I believe. Thank you so much for coming tonight. Thank you to Tobias and George.




Lisa Ann Cockrel: [00:38:25] Many thanks to both George Saunders and Tobias Wolff. Toby once said about George, "You're such a generous spirit, you'd be embarrassed to behave in a small way around him." We found that's true in both of them.

Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College, and produced by the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing. Our team includes Sarah Bass, Jon Brown, Sadie Burgher, Donald Hettinga, Lew Klatt, Scott Hoezee, Jennifer Holberg, Bob Hudson, Anneke Kapteyn, Carolyn Muyskens, Deb Reinstra, Sarah Turnage, Debbie Visser, and Jane Zwart.

You can learn more about the Festival of Faith & Writing at festival.calvin.edu. And, if you're into the social media, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you like what we're doing here on Rewrite Radio, please leave us a review on iTunes. It helps other people discover the show, and we are so grateful.

Also, we've got 26 years of Festival recordings to explore here on Rewrite Radio. And if you've been at some of these Festivals, have a favorite session or two that you're especially excited to hear on this podcast, just shoot me an email at ffw@calvin.edu and tell me about them--just put “Rewrite Radio” in the subject line.

Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.