TAMPA — "Art for me is a kind of compassion training wheels," George Saunders said. "I can't always do it in real life, but I can do it in fiction."
Compassion was the theme of the bestselling novelist's keynote speech Thursday night before a standing-room-only crowd of 1,800 at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs convention in Tampa.
The convention brings more than 10,000 writers, writing teachers, editors and publishers together for an annual meeting with hundreds of panels and other events.
Convention attendees, boisterous after the cocktail hour, filled all the seats in the Tampa Convention Center ballroom. When Saunders took the stage at about 9 p.m. they gave him a rock-star welcome and quieted right down for his speech, sponsored by the University of Tampa's Low Residency Creative Writing Program.
Saunders, 59, won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, about Abraham Lincoln's grief over the death of his young son. He has published several acclaimed collections of short stories and essays, and he has long been a revered teacher in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.
Saunders' writing career wasn't always golden, he told the crowd. His first novel was inspired by a friend's eccentric wedding in Mexico, and he spent a year toiling over a 700-page manuscript he titled La Boda de Eduardo. "It means 'Ed's Wedding,' for Christ's sake," Saunders said with an eye roll.
He gave the manuscript to his wife, who's also a writer. When he peeked into the room a little later, "she was on about page four, and she was doing this," he said, grabbing his bowed head with both hands.
"The clarity of despair" led him to a discovery. While he was at his job as a tech writer, he started writing short poems, "a little pornographic, a little scatological," and those brought "the blessed sound of my wife laughing, in a good way."
He learned, he said, that he had been withholding some of his own strengths from his writing: humor, his love of pop culture, and his understanding of "money and the stress it brings."
"My stories were always about someone trout fishing, or about a guy who was Hemingway but me."
As a writing student, he said, "I'd been climbing Hemingway Mountain all my life. 'I'm coming, Ernest!'
"But I finally figured out I'd never get higher than an armpit. Then you look over and there's Kerouac Mountain."
Saunders said finding his own voice "was kind of like telling the hunting dog that was my talent, 'Go, boy!' And what he brought back was the lower half of a Barbie doll. But it was my lower half of a Barbie doll."
Applying a sense of compassion to fictional characters, Saunders said, can produce "the giddy pleasure of seeing something from all perspectives at once.
"Everybody in this world is on a continuum with us. There's no such thing as 'the other.' The other is us on a different day."
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In the real world, Saunders asked, should we apply that compassion to our political enemies? "Unfortunately, yes."
In 2016 he wrote a widely read story for the New Yorker about attending campaign rallies for Donald Trump. Saunders, a progressive, compared the experience to two people riding toward a castle. "We both agree it's a castle, but you've only watched Game of Thrones, and I've only watched Monty Python."
Now, he said, people ask him, "Should we resist, or should we be compassionate?"
A writer's compassion should extend to his readers as well, Saunders said. "You want to establish an intimate, very frank, very respectful conversation with your imaginary reader.
"That way, when you go over a cliff, she's with you."