By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty
I was sitting on the end of the fifth row inside the Rubloff Auditorium at the Art Institute of Chicago when someone came up alongside me.
“You’re Paul, right?”
A young woman was standing there smiling at me. I said, “Yes?” as I wondered how she knew me. Debt collector? Friend of a bitter ex-girlfriend? Rabid Turtle fan?
“I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Anna. I was in your writing class.”
“Ooooooh! Annnnnnaaaaaa! How are you!!!?”
I had no clue.
I assumed she was a student from Robert Morris University where I teach now, but after several minutes and questions, I gradually deduced she was a student from my alma mater Lewis University, where I was an adjunct instructor in 2007.
In her hands was a copy of “Tenth of December” by George Saunders, the author we were there to see. When our conversation paused, I used that to ask an obvious question, “Are you a Saunders fan?”
My own introduction to George Saunders came along an odd, serendipitous path.
In early 2006, I was working on my M.A. in Writing at DePaul University with a concentration in Creative Writing. Fiction was my passion. My Fiction Professor, after reading some of my stories, told me, “Your writing is similar to George Saunders. Have you read him?”
Like all English majors and creative writers, I have been told of a thousand authors I “have to read!” by classmates, professors, friends, baristas, garbagemen, podiatrists….
I ignored the suggestion.
Three years later, I am taking a Fiction class as part of my MFA in Fiction at Roosevelt University. After reading my work, the head of the program tells me, “Your work is reminiscent of George Saunders. Have you read him?”
I confess I have not, but admit that someone has floated that comparison before.
Still, I read nothing by Saunders.
Soon after this recommendation, I am at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago for a sold out show with one of my favorite authors, David Sedaris. At the end of Sedaris’ shows, he always recommends a book that he is reading and enjoying. Take a wild guess which author Sedaris recommended.
“ALRIGHT ALREADY!” I thought.
I was instantly in love with Saunders’ work. It is brilliant, moving, and funny – three things I try to be in my fiction. Thus, the comparisons now made sense.
However, keep in mind what my professors’ comparisons really meant. Saying “You remind me of Saunders” was actually a polite way of saying, “There’s an author who does what you try to do….and he does it WAY better than you’ll EVER do it. Ya, you should probably study up on him.”
So, they were not saying, nor am I saying, that I’m as good a writer as a bestselling, MacArthur Genius Grant winning author. I’m damn sure not. But he was being brought up as someone I might learn from and emulate.
Now, years later, I am in the Rubloff Auditorium. Now, I’m a professor who has read all of his work, and even teaches some of it. I hesitated to attend. Despite being an English professor and a writer, traditional readings don’t excite me much.
Beyond that, I didn’t know if I could tolerate a Q&A session involving a famous author and an audience of young, aspiring writers – exactly the same as me in my early/mid-20s. The Q&As are all the same. All the young writers raise their hands and ask absurdly detailed and nonsensical questions about the craft of writing: “If I were to use a calculated series of semicolons inside a parenthetical statement that is actually a quote that is being said as part of a narrating character’s inner monologue, will this capture the core strife of socioeconomic imbalance between the modern family dynamic and allow the development of thematic qualities that….”
Oh, just shut the hell up.
It’s ridiculous. Not just the question itself, but because all of the questions – at their heart – are asking the exact same question:
“How do I get to be as great a writer as you?”
It’s as if they expect the famous author to spit up knowledge into their mouth like a mama bird, and suddenly they too will now be a bestselling author.
Mostly, the Q&A went exactly that way and I was drifting in and out of the discussion. But then Saunders said something that punched me right in my cynical face.
He talked about how writers should seek to draw from what is deep and familiar within them. He gave the analogy of how we all fall back to what we do best when we’re in a bind. How do we act when we get in trouble, or need one great pickup line, or need to impress and employer. He said his reservoir was and is humor and sentimentality. I would identify the same way. Hence, the comparisons were starting to solidify.
He then went on to advise, “Accept the part of you that you previously considered unliterary.”
Boom. Mind blown.
It was not a ground-breaking point, but it was phrased in a way that struck me particularly hard. In essence, I took it to mean that we need to draw on and accept our strengths even if they are deemed unconventional or wrong for our fields, degrees, or occupations.
For creative writing students like me, we go through writing degrees that attempt to program us into faded copies of our literary forebearers. “Forget about what YOU do well! Here’s what you MUST do; here’s what literature IS!”
In his most famous TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson also talks about this idea of how school educates us out of our creative capacities and devalues and discourages our skills and talents if they do not match those that are most immediately valued by academia and the workforce.
After over 8 years of schooling in creative writing, I had been asked to evolve and emulate so much, that what I grew up loving to do became an absolute chore. As a kid, I loved writing stories and telling stories. By the time I made it halfway through my MFA, I hated even the thought of writing fiction. I had no fun doing it anymore. It’s no fun to spend my time trying to write like and be like other people, and I’ve found no success in writing that way. (Side note: most creative writing programs would ardently argue that they don’t do this – that they are actually encouraging everyone to embrace the writer they are. Complete B.S.)
With writing, like all professions, there is the problem that – for as much as creativity and innovation is lauded – the norm is too often what gets promoted.
And so, here is Anna standing next to me and I don’t recognize her. However, she clearly remembers me. Obviously she knew my name, but then she goes into specifics about what we did in class, what papers we wrote, and what specific topics she wrote about. I now knew which class she had been in.
And then she laughed. It was a distinctive laugh, and suddenly it triggered my memory. I instantly knew what class she was in, what room we had, which desk she sat in – all of it.
As we continued to talk, it hit me: a student I had in class over a half-decade ago remembers me, and was impacted enough in my class to still know my name, to know what we did in class, and to have liked me enough to want to come say hello.
On the drive home, it dawned on me: Saunders’ advice to “accept the part of you that you previously considered unliterary” is not just true of writing, but of life. Find your strengths. Accept them. Use them. Don’t try to reinvent yourself into someone else. It will be disingenuous; it won’t work.
In teaching, I’ve already accepted the parts of me that were previously considered unacademic, and it seems to have worked out. When I get into class, I draw upon my reservoir of humor and sentimentality, and being me has worked. I’ve mostly ignored the pedagogical programming from graduate school that tried to shape me into a factory-made professor, and that run-in with Anna seems to prove I made the right choice.