On meeting your heroes and not being an idiot.

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I don’t have the best track record with meeting famous people I greatly admire. There was that one time I talked to Jon Snow for almost half an hour before I realised he wasn’t my friend Heather’s dad and that it was the TV I recognised him from, rather than Heather’s living room. Also the time I sat next to Patti Smith without realising I was sitting next to Patti Smith, the infamous being mocked by Thom Yorke on the steps of Westminster story and the time I dropped a burrito on Neil Hannon’s foot. I am also reasonably reluctant to meet my heroes because most people I know who’ve managed to do this have confessed that their special person was pretty ordinary and a little disappointing in the flesh. (This, I must be clear, was not in any way true that one time, circa 1996, when I met veteran local football commentator Jackie Fullerton and had a cup of tea in his house and maybe a biscuit too). For the purpose of avoiding idol-related disappointment I fully intend to run like the clappers in the opposite direction if I ever get a chance to meet Dylan, Charlie from Casualty or Marilynne Robinson. (Flannery O’Connor and Agatha Christie are dead and therefore no longer pose a threat). I’ve had plenty of practice in doing this having turned heel and dashed off in the opposite direction when I chanced upon Stuart “Belle and Sebastian” Murdoch loitering in the corridors of the Ulster Hall, and once, albeit a very long time ago, burst into tears and left the venue when your man from Del Amitri said I could come backstage for a chat.

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Today I had the opportunity to meet one of the people who has most influenced my writing, impacted my thinking and generally inspired me to keep persevering with books. While I might, in my over-awed enthusiasm, have threatened to handcuff him and drag him back to Belfast with me, I think for the most part I behaved reasonably normally. He did a little better than this. Tonight’s reading from Tenth of December was one of the best readings I’ve ever been party to. Both interview/discussions I sat in on today were practical, insightful and above all else, extremely humble. Also, I noticed that he signed everyone’s book with an extra personal little flourish and there was a really long line of people waiting to get there books signed. What a man! Here for all those, unfortunate enough not to have spent their day in the company of George Saunders are ten wise things he said today. I could have written about 50 more. He really is some pup.

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  1. “Whatever you have is sufficient” – write the story you can write and stop trying to write like someone else because your readers can tell when you’re writing something which isn’t truly you.
  2. “A short story is a box that we go into to be stimulated.” – if your reader is bored with the story, no matter how well-written it is, you’ve essentially failed as a writer.
  3. “My method might be strange, but my stories have the same old intention: the heart in conflict with the self.” – there’s no difference between the themes in a Chekhov short story and the themes explored by an extremely experimental Saunders story, it’s the method of exploring these themes which is different.
  4. “Failure for me would be to put out stories that are just like all the other stories.” – there’s too much fear around what’s marketable, trending etc. Writers shouldn’t concern themselves with this when they sit down to write. (see point 1. for further thoughts on this).
  5. “Start writing with the barest notion of an idea.” – it was so liberating to hear another writer admit that they have no idea where they’re going plot or character-wise when they begin a story. I can’t write any other way but this and it’s great to know I’m not the only one. Saunders has gone years redrafting short stories to get them to a point where he finds them believable.
  6. “The reader does not like mere recklessness.” – don’t be obtuse and off the wall just for the sake of shocking your reader. The writer has a responsibility to deliver a good story and experimenting with form, language or plot should always be secondary to, and ideally partner with, good strong writing.
  7. “Writing is play like football is play, sometimes you get the crap kicked out of you.”  – if you’re not essentially enjoying your writing, even when it’s a difficult process, then something has gone wrong.
  8. “Your first draft is usually mockery. As you revise your characters and your reader comes up in your estimation.” – the more specific definition you give to characters and their situations the closer you get to the character and the easier it is to empathise with them rather than stand in judgment. The reader is also turned off by a derisive, overbearing authorial voice and will feel alienated if your characters are only objects of mockery.
  9. “Your voice is often realised by cutting.” – The distinction in a writer’s voice will often emerge through pairing back rather than over writing. Always try to get your sentence across in the most succinct manner possible whilst conveying everything you need to say.
  10. “If I can’t make literature out of this then I can’t make literature.” – if you can’t see the stories in your every day life then it’s likely that you don’t know what a story is or how to create one. Start with the things you encounter every day before you try tackling grandiose themes.
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