What I learned from George Saunders

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of getting an MFA. Spending a year or two focusing on my writing. Discussing writing with great minds. The push and pull of other students. It’s all so appealing, but unfortunately, when I had time, I didn’t have money. When I had money, I didn’t have time. And now I’m not entirely sure I have my wits about me. Why did I just sit down at the computer?

George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, and many other things.

However, the other day I got an invitation from Dzanc press to attend a lecture at which George Saunders would be doing a close reading of Isaac Babel’s story, “My First Goose.” George Saunders has won many literary awards and is a revered teacher at the revered Syracuse University MFA program. So I signed up.

And what a treat it was.

I have read Isaac Babel stories in the past, and have been intrigued by their language, but never understood what they were about. Except they always seemed really dark. Saunders began by guiding us toward a “Hollywood version” of the story. Which is to say he summarized it in a sentence: “A man is rejected, then is accepted.” It seems slightly obvious, and yet with all great insights, it’s obvious only because it gets to the core of the thing. (I immediately swiped the idea and plan to use it in class.)

Then he divided the story up into “six pulses.” These were essentially beats that kept the story moving forward. By looking at each pulse carefully, it became possible to get a better sense of how the story was constructed, and how Babel pared everything down to what was necessary.

George Saunders’ new book, which is an analysis of several Russian short stories. Here’s a buy link, if you’re interested.

My favorite part of the discussion was at the end, when we discussed the last line of the story. This is one of those sentences you could pick apart endlessly, and because it’s translated from the Russian, you can pick it apart the translations as well. This is the iteration I liked the best (from a translation by David McDuff): “I had dreams and saw women in my dreams, and only my heart, stained crimson with murder, squeaked and overflowed.” Whoa! Where to begin?

So do I need an MFA?

Probably not, though I do think I need to go to George Saunders’ lectures. I learned so much about analyzing every detail of a story. It gave me a different way to read. But most importantly, it got me excited, and I always write better when I’m excited.

How about you? Do you have an MFA? Has anything excited you lately? Join the conversation at Facebook and Twitter.

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