George Saunders, A Mastercraft in Writing and life in conversation with Max Porter.

George Saunders, A Mastercraft in Writing and life in conversation with Max Porter.

Chop a Chekov story into pieces.

Echo of class at Syracuse. Break up a story, a page at a time. Forces us to ask that question, why do I keep reading?

If I read a paragraph I’m in a different place than before, where is it?

Granular level. More irritating if the story is really good (cf, working with a shit story).

Forcing the pause.

Sit there for a few minutes asking, where am I now? What bowling pins are up in the air?

Why do I want to stop? Why do I want to keep going?

Noting emotion, I’m irritated. Wondering why?

Setting the baseline. For the rest of the year, that’s the kind of way we’ll be reading.

Read something, react to it, and try to articulate it.

There’s an intuitive noting we’re always doing, even if we don’t articulate it.

At a very basic level, we like it or we don’t.

Success in creating digressions, emotions into something worthwhile?

Second kind of noting. Rather that yes/no, remembering those reactions. And articulating them.

You can’t go into a class and say, shut up and listen. You can say I’m bringing you an object I think is worthy of consideration. Let’s see what sparks fly.

Put them in the path things that can show them the writers they were meant to be.

Touch on the obstructions they may be having.  Or they dynamic they’re trying to figure out between being funny and being serious.

The job is to put explosive devices in front of them.

You’re going to get a lot of pushback.

Students ask questions. One of the things about getting older is your intellectual sphincter tighten up and you’re already sure you already know everything.  You’re reminded talent springs eternal.

For many years as a working class person I have a reaction and I stifle it, because it can’t be right. (I can’t be right).

You try to override your initial reaction with another reaction. Something you’ve heard by somebody smarter than you.

Intellectual falsification and it can make you a crazy person.

It’s like walking into a party. It seems like a good party. There must be something wrong with you. Do you acknowledge that unease? [Ignoring it is one way of coping].

You can go astray. You can read something with too much defensiveness for example. [I’m not going to like this].

At first teaching was just something I had to do to go on writing my books. When you’re faced with a roomful of strangers you have some choices.

You’re involved in an active projection about those people. Do they hate you and find you stupid? Or are they a bunch of friends willing to be converted.

Connecting across age, gender and class, one of the best ways is looking at a made-up story.

What can happen in a room when the person at the front, trusts them.

In the US there’s been a steady devaluing of certain areas of the intellectual life. Reading and writing. Literature is this gauzy, cute, accessory. Nothing to do with the work of the real world.

Master and Man by Tolstoy.

Editing and re-drafting not the story, but yourself.

The Snowstorm

40 years pass and Tolstoy writes another story set in a snowstorm, Master and Man.

Indebted to the first story, but nothing like it.

Read them back to back. The difference is in what Tolstoy learned in those 40 years.

The latter is a more highly organized system.

What we’re trying to accomplish. We’re trying to take our first thing (draft) and trying to make it more highly organized.

Eg. Causality is tighter. Less waste. The thing is more universal. More itself. Framing greater truths.

Something weird about revising and the way I’ve come to understand it is you’re giving yourself chances, thousands of chances, to re-decide things at the phrase level.

Read every day with a pen in hand, and deciding whether I like it or not. And change it.  Be a little bolder.

That process causes the work to be more elevated. Smarter. Have more causation. Weirdly, it causes it to ask better questions. And to ask those questions more precisely.

What I try to do in my work is recognise micro-opinions, do I recognize them in my work, do I recognize them when they appear?

Am I fearless in honouring them? Am I playful?

Commit to micro-decisions and the thing will become more like you.

Reconsideration machines. Ghosts, but literary ghosts.  Peering over your shoulder. Your previous versions are haunted by your past versions.

Dialogue with previous selves.

Something close to intuition and iteration.

The great thing is you have to go with your intuition, but you have to come back to it. You’re letting a bunch of different yous act on the text.

It’s not your job to decide what kind of writer you are. It’s your job to write. I don’t have to be committed to theme, for example. I just have to be committed to making those choices again and again. Style will come out.

I’d a particular way of thinking that I thought that was me. Sarcastic way of seeing the world. You can step out of it. And that can happen at this late-stage revision. Literature become more than literature.

Milan Kundera, Super-personal wisdom finding its way in. Something we don’t have access in our daily life somehow find their way in during the cracks during revision.

Editing and writing gives me ideas how my mind works. My baseline idea is the ruminant part of your mind goes quieter. Monkey mind gets quieter. And in that quiet something else comes up.

There’s a little part of me that says, ‘Ooh, the New Yorker will love that paragraph’.

I need to say to myself. OK, step aside, back to the story.

To be aware of those micro-fluctuations in your mind. Like a smiling uncle saying, yeh, yeh, yeh, but you can’t deny it, because you need all of your energy to do this work.

Different minds and martial of this grand parade in your head. The mind is always in flux.

Principal of fiction, if you can get your stories to ask a valid question.

Our first draft is mostly projection and to revise it is a useful thing.

Mood boarding, the changing of the atmospheric lights.

Ben: I wonder if being in proximity to the mystery is useful. Being in proximity.

What I’d say to my younger writer self? Keep going. Whatever I’d have told him, he’d have rejected. The magic of time. We create these problems with our minds. And we solve them with our minds. The 10 000 hours of practice Malcolm Gladwell talks about. Yeh, you’re on the right track, but you’re ego is out of control.

The brain-dead megaphone essay. We should always consider the source and the motivation. He wanted you to buy, but mostly the agenda is to do something lovely.

Social media. The agenda is to be liked. Somebody’s popping something out of their butt. Encourages you to project incorrectly about people.

Short stories change your perceptions.

Revising, like Buddhist meditation. Opening the door to it being no good. Asking the question how can it be better (how can I be better)?

Accept what is. A saner base for being what may be.

Teaching is the kids will get it- eventually- they might not get it at first.

Trick of teaching. Try to imagine those beautiful 19 year olds as being the 40 year old they will become.

That person needs those stories. You’re doing them a favour be seeding in…a love for this work.

The gentleness of Russian writer in dealing with silly people.

First draft, slighty cartoonish, then as you re-draft that slightly low character comes up a bit.

Chekov, taking somebody you may have overlooked and take them to a higher level.  

Is your story responding honestly to the things you put in motion? Are your characters?

Kindness (of character) requires exactitude.

Flannery O’Connor always fierce in her exactitude. The way people are.

Visiting Time. Poems, essays and stories from behind the walls of HMP Shotts (2019) various authors.


Visiting Time. Poems, essays and stories from behind the walls of HMP Shotts (2019) various authors.

I’m well-disposed to liking this book, as Pat McDaid will tell you. The judge said I was ‘an educated man’ but a ‘danger to society’.

I’d never been called educated before. I was pretty chuffed and my mind jumped to that Tobias Wolff short story when the guy laughs at the bank robbers with guns because they keep talking in clichés. Snobbish, I know. I admitted I was a danger because I kept losing my sobriety and finding my car keys.

The judge didn’t laugh.

Anyway, back to Visiting Time. I like many of the poems, written by Anon, whoever he is. They all seem to rhyme, which is so old fashioned. Outlawed by T.S. Eliot who measured his life in tea spoons.

Six Wishes by Anon.

He wishes things could be more peaceful.

He wishes he’d never done it.

He wishes he was going home to his family.

He wishes he’d stayed at school.

He wishes he had listened to his mother.

He wishes he could turn back time.

It’s an easy enough book to read. I took about an hour. Honesty comes from the heart. Aphorisms and humour, anon, anon.

As Alan Bennett remarked, ‘Reading can feel like a hand reaching out and taking yours’.

Writing can often feel like a slap on the wrist and not for the likes of us.

Think about diegesis and the difference between narrative and plot. The king is dead and the queen died too tells a story. The king is dead, and the queen died of grief, is the plot of a story. It’s got the bounceabilty of a longer narrative, such as, ‘The judge didn’t laugh.’

There are some plays and some songs, but mostly the stories here are simple narratives.  

In a short-story by S, One man’s pain is another man’s laughter, for example, the narrator Stuart gets drunk and attends the wrong funeral. I’ve done that too, although my name isn’t Stuart and I wasn’t drunk, or at least I think I wasn’t drunk. Sit tight or bolt? Then like Stuart, you’ve got everybody lined up, the whole clan waiting to shake your hand, greeting.  What do you do? Tell them you’re no’ really sorry. I never knew the man, or risk getting caught out in the lie? Aye.

rendezvous, another poem by Anon has a wee secret at its heart. It’s an in joke for the alkies.  Only those in the know, nod and wink, know rendezvous is a pub on Dunbarton Road.

sittin in the hoose/bored oot ma heid/telly’s snide/might go back to my bed/then the dog starts to wimper n gee me that stare/get your arse in gear daddy or I’ll shite on the flair/…/arrive at the rendezvous lounge n bar/ plant our weary arses n order a jar.’

Perhaps my favourite story is a fairy-tale. I used to love fairy-tales and big books are just fair-tales too. This a knock-off of a story of auld Nick. You know how there is meant to be seven basic plots, well auld Nick squeezes his way into about three of them. Offhand, think Macbeth, story of the witches.  Rabbie Burns, the Deil and Tam o’shanter.  Walter Scott, Wandering Willie’s Tale.  Robert Louis Stevenson, The Bottle Imp. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.  The list goes on. There’s a devil in all of us.

Old Nick and the Lottery Winner (inspired by a Mayan folk tale) by  Anon follows Chekov’s dictum, a short-story should be a glance, with the Scottish believe there should be a bit of a smirk added.

Deal with the devil and you strike a bargain. It’s there in the title.

‘And that’s what he did. That night the clock struck twelve, the man arrived at the crossroads.’

The devil appears in the form of his long dead da.  We know what the devil wants –your soul. The Edinburgh man wants a hundred-million pound Lottery rollover, which isn’t too much to ask.  

Your plots set up, the deal is done, how to end it all in fewer than 1500 words and diddle the devil?

Read on.

Benjamin Percy (2016) Thrill Me Essays on Fiction.

thrill me.jpg

If like me you like to read and also do a bit of writing, then this is a book you should read. I like the measured approach of Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer. Benjamin Percy gets it from the word go. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions of Writing and Life prioritises writing before life, but, hey, nobody is watching and nobody is perfect.

You can do both. Benjamin Percy bombed on creative writing courses, or workshops, as they call them in America. But he was younger and we all make all kind of mistakes. He liked to read and write genre fiction.

Vampires, dragons and robots with laser eyes. These were the literary stars of my childhood. These stories were unified by the same pattern: they began with a bang –high jinks ensured – then the hero overcame some villainous forces to win love and a heap of treasure. Books were portals meant for escapism.

That was pretty much me too. Or #Me Too. I was a page turner intent on finding out what happened next. Even now I’m not sure if I’ve read a particular book, but bits of what happened sticks to the back of my melting mind. Later in life I did an Open University course on Shakespeare. I always thought I was a bit thick and missing something big. When I sat the exam I answered a question on the role of the fool in Shakespearian drama. Then I stopped. I was bored with what I’d written about Lear’s fool. England’s greatest playwright. The man that had introduced more words to the English language could go and fuck himself. I was never going to be that kind of person. I’d rather read the ingredients on the brown sauce bottle than tackle again Cymbeline, King of Britain. I literally failed the literary test.

I could read a book very quickly but I couldn’t fully understand it. Here’s the bit where I say I knuckled down and…well, you’ll be waiting a long time. When reading becomes like work I’d much rather do something else. You can write about zombies or dragons or robot ghosts and the chances are I won’t read it. If I do it better be better than Shakespeare. Percy asked a workshop tutor he respected for that Rosetta stone of advice that would turn vague scribbling into a published book or story. His advice was simple: ‘Thrill me.’

Imagine there are 1000 books published in English every day. You want to be a writer and work your way to the top, you need to be like Rocky.  Yeh, I know. It’s kind of cheesy. Percy likes Rocky. And I like him for liking Rocky. So you need to have that urgency on the page and in the longer term. You need to take the body blows. So here we have it. Your protagonist needs obstacles in his way to reach his goal. Rocky needs to catch a chicken before he can think of knocking out Apollo Creed. Protagonists need short-term, lower-order goals, before they get a shot at the big prize. In the background there’s always that ticking clock. No chicken is going to wait for you. The bell for the first round is going to ring. The reader needs to turn the page to find out what happens next. To be a writer you need to hook the reader and keep hooking, until you are in the top ten. Then No 1.

In Set Pieces – Staging the Icon Scene you need to cut away the dross and create something memorable. Rocky runs up those steps with thousands of school kids at his back shouting his name. His bloody face after the fight and he looks outside the ring, looking for his wife, and he bawls her name. ‘Adrian…Adrian…Adrian’.

There Will Be Blood, Percy argues violence needs to be earned. Characters do what they keep doing, if violence comes out of nowhere either you’re a genius, or you’ve not caught the chicken first. Violence like love has an emotional arc. Writers should choreograph the dance. Rocky doesn’t just go Pow! Pow! Pow!   Only Rocky can get away with that.

Making the Extraordinary Ordinary is quite a simple idea.

Most beginning writers when they first get caught up in the thrilling idea…Let’s call this tendency giganticism.

He then quotes one of the Russian greats, I don’t really get, Chekov, but who offers good advice about anchoring the universal in specific detail, ‘ on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright star, and the black shadow of a dog or wolf rolled past like a ball’.

In other words the writer is not generalising. Anyone that can write like that, even if it is Chekov or Shakespeare, gets my foolish attention.

He quotes Tim O’Brien in ‘How to Tell a True War Story’ and making the reader believe. ‘Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.’

Designing Suspense something has got to give. In Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, nothing happens twice.  Phewwwwww – fuck off – twice. Percy argues as a writer that’s what we should be looking at. Our characters face their worst-case scenario. You’re characters must juggle and dance with flaming chain-saws, but the writer must know the ending. Truly incredible craziness doesn’t come easy.

Don’t Look Back, Percy tells us writer and readers he gets irritated by backstory. Novice writers love backstory. It explains away the incredibly exciting story of  how Godot waited and waited or as Percy calls it the Scooby Doo trick. Time moves backwards and the theme tune of Why Don’t You Switch Off Your Television Set And Go And Do Something Less Boring Instead comes on. Only, it would be a smart-phone now and not a telly. You see I’ve taken you backwards with my waffling on. I think it’s quite entertaining. I’m sad that way.

Sounds like Writing, you know it’s not. Percy gets that right? Writers like Shakespeare to me sound like writing. I want to read writers who don’t sound like writing. Who are human. Who are fools in the right/wrong way. Generally, any middle-class twaddle isn’t for me. Stick it. Sounds like Writing. I’ll scroll on past.

Activating Settings is the write what you know school of thought. I get that. I really do. Percy writes about Oregon. I write about Clydebank. When someone asks me what I write about I tell them, I write about us. That’s in theory, because nobody asks. But if they do, I’ll say, so there.

Percy advises writers to Get a Job. No, he’s not Norman Tebbit wittering on about how his dad didn’t go about rioting but got on his bike and got a job. What Percy is saying here is language is rooted in who we are. Our identity often comes from the job we do. Getting a job as roofer, nurse, labourer, dishwasher or working in a Job Creation scheme gives you a common lingo. A guy that tutored writers in Moniack Moor, which describes itself as Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre, told me that typically the would-be writer would be a retired school teacher who decided to spend their remaining years tackling their great opus. Working class writers don’t go on retreats. They simply write. I’ve been doing it for years. It’s not my job. My job is to Thrill You when I do write. I think I can hear the Rocky them tune. Benjamin Percy is a knock-out.