On Saunders and Sentences

george-saundersI have a thing for deeply flawed voices in stories. Those characters who immediately rope you into a new way of seeing the world. Use of diction and sentence structure is crucial to sending the reader straight into a character’s head. There are many great examples, but no one author has influenced my way of composing sentences like George Saunders.

A creative writing teacher lent me his book Tenth of December because she thought I would enjoy the stories, but also look at his use of craft when forming my own writing. I read the book, with few breaks, over one weekend, sitting on my chilly porch, each gnawing breeze pushing me further and further into the work. His characters are gritty, realistic people in slightly unreal situations. The really incredible part is, he can put me into a way of thinking without so much as using first person. His word choice and forming of sentences is largely to thank.

Take, for example, this passage from the first story, “Victory Lap” of his recent Tenth of December: “Had he said, Let us go stand on the moon? If so, she would have to be like, {eyebrows up}. And if no wry acknowledgment was forthcoming, be like, Uh, I am not exactly dressed for standing on the moon, which, as I understand it, is super-cold?” What stuck me, what would change the way I write, is how a character’s’ thoughts become part of a stream, the way both dialogue and action are projected in his mind. He doesn’t think in clear patterns, the way people are expected to in stories. Instead, it’s much more real. When a person becomes jittery and nervous, they cram their thoughts and reactions together. This is what Saunders does in the anxious stream of possibilities, of a character with that “super-cold”, creating a condensed form of thinking, the way I have internally.

Reading this style of writing strikes me, because it’s unusual, but once I fall into the patterns of it, my thinking matches up with the character and suddenly, at least in my experience, the two of you are one. The story is immediate and palpable, not distanced and planned. This is what I wanted to create. A kind of writing so direct, so natural, that it becomes synonymous with a reader’s own mind. At the moment, I have many stories with the subtleties of Saunder’s style creeping up in them.

I wrote a story last year about the destroyed landscape of a Florida swamp swallowing its abusers in a storm, “Song”. The terror of the characters needed to be visible, but just as important was their way of interacting with the world from the beginning. Anyone can be scared. Only Johnny, a doomed Floridian, could arrive with his background of going to work each day to smother the land in concrete and wood, a life dripping with heat and humidity, the whole system of values instilled in him so, when the land finally did claim him, it was as a product of place being consumed by place. When I revised the story, the sentences were just as much a product of the place as Johnny himself. The words were carefully chosen in both vernacular and specificity. The land’s reaction isn’t the first violence; this is a setting fraught with battles over control. Word choice, whenever possible, held that history of conflict.

In the end, that story was published in the 2016 edition of Elan. And I plan to keep reading George Saunders, keep inventing characters that are so saturated with individual views, so honest through language, that a reader can’t help but delve into their world, headfirst.

Ana Shaw, Junior Editor-in-Chief