Doing Something New
I was reluctant to read George Saunders’s much-celebrated book. In the past, I have appreciated his work, though some stories have felt too sentimental for me. But I have no reservations about Lincoln in the Bardo. Bottom line: it’s a masterpiece.
I loved this book for many different reasons. As a writer, it comes down to one quality: Saunders is trying to tell stories in new, innovative ways. As I have long told students, all the stories you could ever imagine being told have been. The challenge is in the way you tell them.
The most recent Writer’s Chronicle issue republished Saunders’s keynote address at this spring’s AWP conference. In his presentation, he talks about his early days as a writer, climbing various metaphorical mountains so that he might stand beside literary giants like Hemingway and Carver, until one day he discovered it was better to climb his own hill, in his own way. Saunders stumbled upon his writing gifts. He’d doodled things in the margins of a legal pad he’d been using at work. When at home he overhead his wife laughing out loud at what he had written, he had an epiphany: this was what he was good at.
I think Saunders’s story has two important points worth noting. Yes, we should write from our identified strengths. That’s how you begin to understand how all those stories that have already been told might benefit from your own special version of them. But in looking at a work like Lincoln in the Bardo, I know Saunders didn’t stop there. He hasn’t, for the past thirty years of his writing career, been coasting on his gifts as a humorist. His latest novel shows the world that he is still striving, still improving, still (for lack of a better word) experimenting.
The goal should always be to push against our perceived limitations–as artists and as human beings. That’s what makes for the best in art and life.