In addition to plenty of great advice for aspiring writers, George Saunders reflects on the creative process for his new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, the mystery of the “constellation of meaning” — the interviews, notes, and scenes that once distilled become his nonfiction work, and on bold compassion as the right course of resistance under a Trump presidency.
You can learn a lot from a Missouri Bass Pro Shop about white America’s misperceptions and fantasies about the Osage Nation, if you’re really looking.
Chadburn’s beautiful, brutal essay pairs memories of poverty and the foster care system with an unlikely clarion call: pay your taxes. “Taxes are revolutionary,” she writes. “When I pay my taxes I am telling my community I value you.”
A meditation on fall, the fall and falling:
“Fall. Here is my favorite reading of the word: to have its proper place: The accent falls on the last syllable. There is a beauty in that, a symmetry. It remakes the whole idea of fall, not as a careening or a tumbling, but as a stately inevitability, as if it had been there all along.”
What happens when a former prison inmate sues for medical malpractice:
Tonight in a nursing home in the North End neighborhood of Boston, not far from where his family owns a restaurant, there is a man with the brain of a boy. He is blind. He is 375 pounds because he doesn’t know when he is full. He can’t walk. His wheelchair is padded with a cushion from a beach chair that his mother folded in half. He has to be taken to the bathroom every thirty to sixty minutes. He can remember what his life was like before. He cries when he is asked about it.
“For the first few months after my son was born, I called him The Baby, or sometimes just Him with a capital H, huge proper nouns to illustrate how completely he took over my life. Is he eating, not eating? Pooping, not pooping? What color is the poop, how long ago was the poop, did I mark the poop on the spreadsheet? I had spreadsheets. I had stuff—white noise CDs and magnetic blocks and this super high-tech video monitor with a remote wireless screen and night vision, which made The Baby glow electric green in the dark like he was a CIA target. It was a little unnerving, actually. It had two frequencies, an A channel and a B channel, in case you had two kids in separate rooms, and what’s interesting about this is that one of my neighbors must have owned this same monitor, because on channel A, I saw my baby, and on channel B, I saw someone else’s.”
The writer pays a visit to a friend:
“I visit him on Tuesday nights at the only time they’ll let me see him. I show the receptionist my driver’s license, confirm my social security number and home address, and sign my name on a dotted line.
“‘Relationship?’ I’m always asked.
“‘Friend,’ I always say.
“The woman—it is the same woman every time—looks, at first, disinterested. She doesn’t even bother to raise her head. She types my name into her computer—click click, click click—but when she finds me, her face lights up.
“‘Oh, there you are,’ she says, smiling, as if it’s possible I’ve disappeared.”
“I was just so committed, and I did have six years of rejection letters. And it really didn’t break my heart. Some of them made me really excited because some of them had little handwritten notes at the bottom. Pretty good, but not our thing. And I was like, I got a really great handwritten note from Harper’s! And I would hang it on my wall, like, That’s such a great rejection letter! I don’t know why I felt like I had the right to do it. I don’t know. I’ve always been really surprised—and I really remain very surprised—at people who don’t think they have the right to do their work, or feel like they need a permission slip from the principal to do it, or who doubt their voice. I’m always like, What? What? Fucking do it! Just fucking do it! What’s the worst that could happen?! You fucking fail! Then you do it again and you wear them down and they get sick of rejecting you. And they get tired of seeing your letters and they just give up. They don’t have any choice. So part of it was real confidence, and part of it was fake confidence, and part of it was insecurity. It was a combination of all them.”
A writer examines issues of racism he witnessed while growing up in Waterloo, Iowa, and running a grocery store with his father:
“When I went back for an event for my college fraternity, I introduced myself to one of the new guys, my brother who is the first ‘black guy’ in my fraternity. When I asked him where he was from, he said, ‘From South America originally.’ I laughed and said, ‘No, I meant where from in the US—St. Louis, Kansas City?’ The suburban kid from St. Louis didn’t want to be considered ‘African American.’ For him, being South American was a safer play in a predominately white fraternity.
“I’ve wondered whether an African American would have gotten a small business loan like my father did.
“In 1989 when the movie came out, a reporter asked Spike Lee a question about what viewers ‘should learn’ from Do The Right Thing. Lee smiled and quipped that maybe black folks should be able to get financing to run their own pizzerias.”
A son attempts to get an unpublished manuscript of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle for his dying mother, an avid science fiction and fantasy reader:
“Mom is completely nonplussed. I am a little hurt, but then I realize I haven’t seen Mom once the past several weeks with her hands on a paperback or her Kindle.
“I decide that if things come through with the Paolini book—and I spend a lot of time thinking about this, more time than I probably should, because it’s an easy and hopeful thing to think about—I will read it to her myself. Out loud, while she lies in bed too weak to hold the pages up in her hands. When my grandfather was dying of pancreatic cancer, my aunt rubbed lotion into the cracked skin on his feet. She guided a straw from a glass of ice water to his lips. I imagine my reading to Mom will be just like performing these tasks, only different.”