An Evening of Literary Conversation or “The Inner Nun”

It’s the way I like to go to performances. Just show up 5 minutes before and see what tickets are available. That turned out to be the plan when my wife Sheila suggested we go to the Pittsburgh Literary Speaker Series the other night. The speaker was short story writer Gary Saunders. A McArthur Genius award winner, I couldn’t help but think that I can only benefit from being around smart people. However, it was really my wife, Sheila’s idea (actually another smart person) to go see him, in part due to her recently published book, Warrior Mother and her commitment to be around great authors. The evening looked like it would be fun.

It was amazing.

Saunders was immensely entertaining as he discussed his writing process and emphasis on language precision. Referring to himself as a “lapsed Catholic” he told us of his “internal nun” who is his writing critic. She’s the voice that makes sure his word choices are exact and move the story forward.  He provided an example of how this works. If he would write, “Bob entered the living room and sat on the blue couch.” His inner nun would question the importance of each word. “George” she would say, “Is blue really necessary for the story?” He hilariously ran through each word she reprimanded him on until he finally realized that the only word he had left was “Bob.”

For anyone who writes, I thought the most powerful part of his lecture was his description of how he lets the story come to him. Rather than being overly prescriptive and planful about where the story will go, Saunders will reread his story over and over again from the perspective of a fresh reader. He then asks himself the question, “Does this word (or sentence/phrase/paragraph) make sense and contribute to the direction that the story wants to take me?” He lets the story lead him trusting his creative sense to create his masterpieces. The New York Times Magazine named The 10th of December, Saunders latest book, as the “best book you’ll read this year.”

I’m going to experiment with letting my writing come to me rather than forcing the writing to conform to my preconceived ideas. For those of us who weren’t English majors, I appreciate Saunders willingness to share some of the tricks of his trade. I’d be interested in hearing from you any insights you have on your own writing process? Do you have an inner critic? Do you have a way of letting what you are writing inform you? What are your best writing tips?

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