George Saunders on Talent

From George Saunders’ “Confronting Talent,” his introduction to the issue of Guernica he guest-edited in 2006:

. . . the essential thing is having a talent for having talent. You have certain abilities, certain defects as a writer: how do you accommodate these? There are certain things you can’t seem to do—what form can you invent to circumvent these things? You have certain fears, obsessions, neuroses, patterns of thought and speech—can you let these into the work, accepting them as part of the wonder that is you, and accepting the wonder that is you as part of the greater wonder that is the world? Or do you lunge back to the shore, taking comfort in the conventional?

The young writer is called upon, in other words, through work and craft and persistence, to take the raw talent he or she has, and force it into some deep, dark corners. . . to try to wrest from “mere” talent a kind of iconic originality…to confront the parts of himself or herself that, in the early days of a career, one thinks can be ignored, or overcome, or hidden under a mattress somewhere.

But no. Turns out, everything must be used.

This is, I think, one of the most difficult things about writing — to not only acknowledge your flaws, but to struggle against them daily, to turn them inside out and make them produce.  I often get to a point in a story where I find myself thinking, ‘Yeah, this is pretty good, OK, we’re in good shape here,’ and then a workshop discussion or an incisive reader will point out all the ways I’ve been fooling myself and holding out, and I have to go back and really work at the story, open it up, dig deeper.  I don’t have a good metaphor for that process, but it’s often painful and very hard work. When I do it well, though, it yields enormous results.  I won’t pretend I’m anything like a writer Saunders would consider ‘great’ rather than just ‘good’, but I understand that transition he’s talking about, from being satisfied with a story as it is and really striving to find the best version of a story as it should be.

What I can’t help wondering is, when will I be able to call myself on my own bullshit the way other people are able to do?  When will I have a strong enough sense of the work that I’ll be able to push myself to do this kind of deep excavation of a story?  Because that does seem to be the goal, doesn’t it?  We do it in class, with instructors and peers, so that we will learn how to do it once we’re on our own. I won’t always be lucky enough to have truly insightful readers around to keep me in line, so what I should be doing is learning how to turn those methods on my own work.

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