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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

George Saunders, Writer

“I could imitate.”

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Johnny Tremain.  

When I was in third grade, a nun gave me Johnny Tremain. I was kind of in love with her a little bit, and I think she saw that I was a good reader and so she checked the book out of the library just for me. And she said these words: “This is a really hard book, but I think you can do it.”

I wanted to like it for her, and that book is actually kind of a masterpiece of style. I had never read a book like that before that wasn’t really there only to convey information, but also had a kind of aesthetic purpose. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. You know that feeling when you’re reading something so powerful that you’re not in your world anymore? That’s what happened. I was just in Boston in 1776. And that went on and on. And I never really knew how to thank her, but I just would kind of catch her eye and go, I’m reading it, I’m reading it. And the thing about that was I learned I have a good ear. I could do Esther Forbes in my head, I could kind of imitate. So I would hang around the school and narrate things in that voice. I didn’t know what was happening to me.

Later, I was living in Amarillo, Texas, and I had an engineering job that I quit. And I came home kind of with that idea of being a writer, and had this little duplex apartment and a motorcycle, and one night I had this really crazy dream. A really vivid dream. And I got up and wrote a couple notes about it. And then the next night, I worked all day and had a pot of coffee and a bottle of Boone’s Farm, and then I fleshed out that little dream, and that got published. It was called “A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room,” and it was a real crazy story. It was the first time I’d ever written myself out of my own ideas. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t have any idea where it was going. But it was the sound of the language that was really there.

I had no structure. And I thought, This isn’t really a story. It’s too crazy. But I could feel that it had a little power, because I wasn’t sure what was going on. And then, of course, I kind of chickened out for about seven years — went through grad school and all that. But that night was really magical. I remember that night. Before, as a working-class person, I was always slavishly trying to do what I saw being done in books, you know. But that was really euphoric. Then I think I needed a lot of time to figure out how to sustain that for more than three pages. But it was almost like, in a religious sense, sometimes all it takes is one powerful experience, and then even if it goes blank, you remember that you had it. This story was like that, in that whenever I wrote something later, I’d go, Yeah, it wasn’t like that. So it was almost like having a benchmark. I’ve gotta someday get back to that level of spontaneity. And then finally I did, but it took a long time.


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