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George Saunders Reflects On Writing And Kindness

Basso Cannarsa/Random House

George Saunders didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer. He got a degree in geophysics from the Colorado School of Mines and worked in the oil-fields in Sumatra in the years after college. It wasn’t until he was almost thirty that he realized he could write for a living, and he began an MFA program at Syracuse University (where he would later teach).

But his path to becoming one of the most popular writers in America wasn’t easy. After graduating, he had to work a day job as technical writer for an engineering company. But rather than resent the job, he found it liberating because it provided consistent means of support for his family. That meant that he could really experiment with his writing — “I can be as wild as I want,” he felt.

That theme — a generous take on what others might find oppressive — can be found throughout Saunders’s writing. Though much has been made of his portrayals of relentless capitalism, he says his is different from despairing existentialists because he focuses “not on the endless cycle of meaningless activity but the endless cycle of meaningful activity.”

His new book, Congratulations, by the way, also demonstrates that generosity of spirit. It is adapted from a convocation speech Saunders gave at Syracuse University. The theme of the address is summarized with the line: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”

Have you read George Saunders’s work? What questions do you have for him?

George Saunders speaks Monday night at Portland State University’s Smith Student Union Ballroom at 6 pm. The speech is open to the public and a part of the Kellogg Awards Ceremony, which honors talented PSU writing and English students. More info here.

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