Monday Writing Motivation: It might be a sh*t-hill, but it’s my sh*t hill

 In How to write a book, Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

I’m going to invite one of the world’s great short story writers to take my place at my laptop and write a piece for you about a moment in his writing career that every writer experiences. The writer is George Saunders, and the piece he’s going to write is something that already appears in his most recently published book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.

I quoted him last week, and doubtless I’ll quote him next week, because his insights into the writing process are among the most acute I’ve ever come across.

I bought the book to read before I attended the virtual Cambridge Literary Festival, which kicked off last week. He was the first luminary to appear. (Maggie O’Farrell was the second. More about her in the weeks ahead.)

He spoke, among other things, about the first short story he ever wrote that he believed was written in his own authentic voice. It happened when, after years of trying to imitate his hero, Hemingway, he jettisoned that ambition, and wrote something impulsively that was, he said, “actually kind of funny* and a little sci-fi and a little goofy.”

He picks up the story in his book. George, over to you.

“When I finished the story, I could see that it was the best thing I’d ever written. There was some essential ‘me-ness’ in it – for better or worse, no one else could have written it. The things that were actually on my mind at that time, because they were in my life, were in the story… (It) was oddly made, slightly embarrassing – it exposed my actual taste, which, it turned out, was kind of working-class and raunchy and attention-seeking. I held that story up against the stories I loved… and felt I’d let the form down.

“So this moment of supposed triumph (I’d “found my voice!”) was also sad.

“It was as if I’d sent the hunting dog that was my talent out across a meadow to fetch a magnificent pheasant, and it had brought back, let’s say, the lower half of a Barbie doll.

“To put it another way: having gone about as high up Hemingway Mountain as I could go, having realised that even at my best I could only ever hope to be an acolyte up there, resolving never again to commit the sin of being imitative, I stumbled back down into the valley and came upon a little shit-hill labelled ‘Saunders Mountain’.

“‘Hmm,’ I thought. ‘It’s so little. And it’s a shit-hill.’

“Then again, that has my name on it.

“This is a big moment for any artist (this moment of combined triumph and disappointment), when we have to decide whether to accept a work of art that we have to admit we weren’t in control of as we made it and of which we’re not entirely sure we approve. It is less, less than we wanted it to be, and yet it’s more, too – it’s small and a bit pathetic, judged against the work of the great masters, but there it is, all ours.

“What we have to do at that point, I think, is go over, sheepishly but boldly, and stand on our shit-hill, and hope it will grow.

“And – to belabour this already questionable metaphor – what will make that shit-hill grow is our commitment to it, the extent to which we say, ‘Well, yes, it is a shit-hill, but it’s my shit-hill, so let me assume that if I continue to work in this mode that is mine, this hill will eventually stop being made of shit, and will grow, and from it, I will eventually be able to see (and encompass in my work) the whole world.”

Happy writing,

Richard (and George)

*  Talking of funny, may I remind you that Jo-Anne and I will be talking about, and taking your questions on, the use of humour and comedy in your writing at our usual monthly webinar on May 12 at 18:00 (SA time) and 17:00 (UK time.) We hope it’ll be a barrel of laughs.

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