I’m a huge fan of audiobooks, or as my dad still calls them, ‘books on tape.’ There’s something wonderfully immersive and intimate about having someone read to you. As a child, it’s how I discovered that the meaning of life is 42, and that the world is a flat disc balanced on the backs of four elephants which in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle (and how I miss you both, Doug and Terry).
Audiobooks turn ordinary moments into adventures: a walk to class, grocery shopping, waiting for the bus. I seldom leave the house without my headphones on, and a voice whispering stories in my ear. And after more than two decades of aural dedication, I’ve begun to develop a theory – that there are some books or authors you simply need to hear; work that doesn’t ‘click’ until you remove the transaction of the written page, and have it piped straight into your brain.
George Saunders is an author I needed to hear. When I tried to read the ‘The Tenth of December’ I felt I was missing something: the characters grated, the language tripped me, it seemed to be trying too hard – or perhaps I was. And then I listened to the audiobook (read by Saunders himself; a rare treat) and it finally made sense. The stories had an internal music that I hadn’t been able to find on my own…
Which is a very long way of setting up how deeply excited I was at the prospect of seeing George Saunders read his work in person on his recent visit to Blacksburg as part of the VT Visiting Writers Series. I bought my tickets months in advance, turned up far-too-early to get a too-eager seat near the front, and waited for the magic to begin. But he didn’t read a damn thing!
Instead, he did something even better; he talked about why storytelling and storytellers matter. In a 90-minute speech that was part craft talk, and part defense of the arts, Saunders demonstrated, with wit and irreverence, how the process of writing invites – nay, demands – empathy and kindness; how it is not possible to write compelling characters without furnishing them with histories and vulnerabilities, and that this transference of essential humanity enhances our own. Even our darkest and most challenging stories – the nasty, naughty, mean and gross – help us to see the best in ourselves, to value our fortunes and privileges, and stress-test our assumptions and ideals.
It’s a powerful message, and one that I needed to hear. I come from a culture in which a career in the creative arts is often seen as frivolous, as ‘playing’ rather than working. It has been difficult for me to come to terms with my choice to leave a career to pursue an MFA: to learn to be proud, rather than defensive. And the Saunders talk reinforced that there is much to be proud of – it reminded me that storytelling is one of the most primal, powerful and important things humans do; that the qualities of great stories are the qualities that make us most human: curiosity, generosity, creativity, inclusiveness, humor and most importantly, imagination and empathy.
We need stories, even if we don’t always know why.
The power of stories is why I’m here in the VT MFA program, a hemisphere away from my home and family. It’s why I never leave the house without a book in my bag…and a voice in my ear.