4/17/19: George Saunders, Kleinhans Auditorium, Buffalo

I was expecting – hoping for – some kind of multi-vocal reading of Lincoln in the Bardo from George Saunders. After all, the audiobook has like 5 trillion different voices. Instead, he spoke about the relationship of writing to life, to compassion. Some of the processes of fiction writing, he suggests, revolve around the writer’s ability to inhabit one’s characters. No, not inhabit: that’s too unidirectional. He doesn’t call fiction, as many do, an empathy machine; he uses the word compassion. A compassion machine.

This, in itself, is not new. What seemed clear to me is that one’s ability to create successful compassion machines (in whatever medium) comes not strictly from the development of craft, but from a long-term investment in their creation. Saunders didn’t talk much about craft. Instead, he talked about a writerly commitment to an inhabitation of otherness, however limited, defined loosely as anything outside one’s own consciousness. The 10,000,000 hours, then, are spent not simply on writing, but on inhabitation, which, through practice, loosens the dangerous racial/gendered/classed/abled imaginaries.

Question: how can we teach empathy specifically in a creative writing class?

  • Classroom dynamics – workshop, communication, and critique models
  • Adichie’s “The Single Story” – which stories get told, and how
  • Craft strategies – collective narration, 2nd person?

There’s a conference panel here somewhere – not simply about how to teach empathy in a creative writing classroom, but also how to work with the limits and misuses of empathy. Thoughts?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *