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Last month I wrote about how back in 1998, my writing hero– visited Brown University’s MFA program for a few days. And lucky for me, I was an MFA student there. And I had a private conference with George about my writing. He told me he was a big believer in Faulkner’s old chestnut “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” And when George told me about this concept, it was a revelation times a million. It totally rocked me.
After reading that post, some of you very reasonably asked for clarification on what I meant by “the heart in conflict with itself”:
Of course, happy to. So what I’m going to do is pop the hood on George’s short story, “The Wavemaker Falters.” And I'm going to show you how I think the heart being in conflict with itself is the secret engine that powers this story.
Quick sidebar: thank you to my most recent paid subscribers for your encouragement and support:John Glassie. You all are my ride or die peeps.
Also happy to report that what we’re doing over here at Kurt Vonnegut Radio is getting noticed and we got a nice little write up in this week’s Bookforum.
Anyway, so I'll read George's story to you on the podcast. And will add my commentary here and there. Fwiw if you haven't read this story before, I am seriously jealous. Because it's a banger. Elegant and cheerfully deranged. Shot through with new-fangled pathos. A real heartbender.
And I will show you how I think George's protagonist's heart is in conflict with itself. And how because the protagonist’s heart is in conflict with itself, the story becomes a living, breathing thing.
And once you understand and can see this concept working in another work of narrative art, perhaps it'll be of use to you in your own writing?
IMHO this is probably the most important thing that anybody who is interested in storytelling could ever hope to know or understand. And after you learn this, you'll be able to see how a character's heart in conflict with itself drives stories. Because in the best narrative, the protagonist's heart will always be in conflict with itself. Because the heart being in conflict with itself is the fundamental human condition. We all exist in that state all the time, knowingly or unknowingly.
Now let's get into George’s story, “The Wavemaker Falters.” From George’s first book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. Oh, just to give you a little heads up, there is some violence in this story. And to set the stage a little bit, the narrator of the story works at a water park that has a historical reenactment component to it. Like Epcot Center or Disney World, but super weird and maybe a little demented. But as with all of George’s work, this story possesses great sensitivity and is incredibly moving. I think it has one of the most beautiful and elegiac endings of any story I know. All these years later, it can still choke me up.
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Hi, I’m Gabe Hudson, and this is Kurt Vonnegut Radio, my Substack. It will always be free, but it’s also how I make a living. So please consider upgrading to a paid subscription: just $5/month or $50/year. You can also receive my eternal love by becoming a Lifetime Member at $150.
Buy George Saunders’ first book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
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