• Try to Be Funny, Don’t Suck

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 31 comments

    Discussion questions: George Saunders’ recent Paris Review interview left me with a lot to think about, and maybe it can do the same for you. I’ve stolen from it and listed them below. Do any of them speak to you and make you think about your own writing? In what ways? Let’s talk about it in the comments. 


    Whenever I read a George Saunders interview, his commentary on craft gives me fresh new insights into my own work and approach. Every time. Now here he is again, in the winter issue of the Paris Review, talking writing with Benjamin Nugent and giving instructions like, “Try to be funny, don’t let the reader tune out, don’t suck.”

    The interview isn’t available online yet (but you can read the intro, and half of Saunders’ answer to the first question), but I’ve picked out a few choice passages for us to talk about this week.

    Read through the list below and see if any of them speak to you and make you think about your own writing. If so, let’s talk about it in the comments.


    1. “[Writing is] like being a plumber but every time you show up, the pipes are made of different materials and transport different types of liquid and you’re given weird new tools. And you’re drunk.”


    2. “I was, and still am, comforted by the knowledge that you don’t have to have a big theory about fiction. We don’t have to ask anything but, Would a reasonable person, reading line four, get a little jolt and go on to read line five?”


    3. “And my feeling is, if something fascinates you, you should just go there — you have to. I don’t think you have to necessarily understand why. We’re looking for language-rich zones, places that get us revved up, places that feel bountiful.”


    4. “The way you’re going to be charming on the page is going to have some resemblance to the way you’re charming in person.”


    5. “[In my family] being funny was a way of being powerful. … I once heard someone say that writers tend to come out of families in which it is understood that language is powerful.”



    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast. He writes about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

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    david lemke

    My dad went to third grade. I don’t know if he finished third grade or not. He read comic books as if they wert the height of literature. AS the oldest, he had to take care of his brothers. He would say that his mother died at two, but that is suspect since he had three brothers and a sister. My mother, who left home at sixteen, so I’m sure she never graduated. I won’t go into the why of it. She read to me, poems, fairytales and encouraged me with my art. The most wonderful thing she ever did… Read more »


    Like you, my father went to 3rd grade and quit to take care of the family when his father died. I don’t disagree with #5. I think you need to look at you. I learned to love books because I could see well enough to play with the others.I would sit and read, that way I didn’t trip over things, or get hit in the face with a ball, or run into things I couldn’t see. Luckily my mother always had books for us in the house and would read to me when she could. I learned to read by… Read more »

    Elissa Malcohn

    First, congratulations and well done to the WBNers with newly published works! And congrats to the micro-fiction winners and honorable mentions! The first three quotes resonate with me especially. The first made me chuckle and nod. The second resonates especially with my current project. The third sounds like second nature. The fourth quote makes me think, because “charming” seems like such an unusual word. For example, there’s a difference in flavor between “charm school” and “snake charmer.” The latter suggests one who mesmerizes, which appeals to me as a writing goal. The fifth quote resonates with me in that my… Read more »


    #5 holds my heart. Here’s why-When I 1st had dinner with my husband’s family, I was so impressed by their conversations. They discussed politics, history & sports over teeny chicken legs. At my house, we lifted platters of ham & beef with the heft of gym weights while talking about each other. “Did you see her the size of her? You could play solitaire on her backside.” “What did you do to your hair. Is that purple?” “No. It’s eggplant.” “How you gonna be a mother with purple, excuse me, Miss Coiffeuse, vegetable hair?” #5 made my day, now that… Read more »

    adrien leslie

    Then we were both well fed body and soul!


    Try To Be Sunny, Don’t…nevermind…

    2 and 5 for me.

    I read a quote once,”Be cogent, funny, or silent”. I try to use this as an orientation for all communication, written and verbal. I always tended to diarrhea of the mouth when nervous, so this was a good rule of thumb. Is it interesting? Does it grab a reader? Would it grab me if someone else wrote it?

    I grew up in atmospheres where language was powerful, alright…like the song said, “Words are weapons, sharper than knives/Makes you wonder how the other half die…”


    I always figure everything I say, write or do is boring to most people…so how to keep it interesting?

    Vonnegut said something about “ruthless obliteration”…”people want to read the story of your characters, not your ‘dig-me-I’m-so-clever’ wordplay”.


    I much enjoyed Mr. Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo.” I also much enjoyed the excerpts of his interview presented in this blog post. The #3 struck me, especially. In the conflict between business person (I must write to make money) vs artist (I write to create something; say something), if the artist doesn’t win out, how can there be any winning for the writer? Depends on the writer’s view of “winning,” I suppose. For me, I am compelled to go to places in my writing that fascinate me, whether or not they fascinate anyone else. Hence, I don’t make money.… Read more »


    “Writing is like being a plumber but everytime you show up, the pipes are made of different materials and transport different types of liquid and you are given weird new tools. And you’re drunk.” I can see the parallels between writing and drinking. In order to create a sentence; one needs words. The use of different words, results in different sentence structures. For me, the materials ARE the words. And with so many to choose from who knows the outcome. And depending on the order of words; meaning changes. After a few drinks.. reality may appear different. Life may appear… Read more »


    1 and 3 hit for me. #1 is like one of my favorite sayings: Just when I learned all the answers of life, they went and changed all the questions. There is always so very much we don’t know about our craft, our books in progress and what people want to read. Just when you think you got it, it all changes. #3 hit home because so many people write what they think the market wants to read. Meanwhile, I just get and idea and go with it. The whole book can change in the middle if something better comes… Read more »

    Hans De Leo

    For me, I relate to #2 through 4 the most. #1 for me is more about the mechanics of writing. Then there’s #5. Writing wasn’t even on my radar. I knew I was going to be a technician or something because of my intuition around machines. In my teen years I began reading, most of it science fiction. Did I mention the library next to the school? Yeah, well it was more of a convenience thing. I’d come home with books by Andre Norton and after a while my siblings wanted to know what that was all about. My older… Read more »


    Thank you for another interesting discussion. For me it would have to be #4 and #5, although I am more charming in writing than in person, for sure. On my mother’s side everyone was very smart, talked too much, drank too much and fought too much. They were occasionally charming, but words were weapons. On my fathers side, few had college degrees, were mostly farmers, distrusted books, said little, but when they spoke everyone listened and they often came up with true gems. They were humble and sweet. So, the bottom line was that Mom usually won the arguments, but… Read more »


    Yea, I am your aunt! Uncle Thaddeus and I have been waiting on the front lawn with all our furniture ever since you said we could live with you. It’s okay, we can hold out a little longer! We are, after all, humble and sweet, and I make very good pies. Yes, we are from Richford Center… wait, Richland, that’s it.


    Never mind all that. The real question is “Taylor Ham or Pork Roll?”


    maybe in Kiev


    We only have the hammock, the pipe organ, Thaddeus’s accordion and his foot bath, the crock pot and the pot bellied stove, although Taddy’s pot belly is a piece of furniture in and of itself. Everything else got stolen while we were in jail (we are innocent.) Re: the pies, lemon meringue is my specialty, but I won my blue ribbon with my French Silk. Lately, however, we have had to settle for squirrel, or pinecone with whipped snow. Stoplights, bubbler, soda! I don’t speak those foreign languages!

    Joan Rashid

    Joan Rashid While I don’t totally agree with quote #5, I don’t totally disagree either. The issue I have with this quote is that it sounds too much like all writers come from backgrounds where their parents were highly educated and/or taught them to value the importance of words. That applies to some writers but not all. In today’s world, writers are an eclectic group of people. We value the importance of words, and in some cases, we may have learned this on our own, or in school or from a combination of variables, which could include home influences, teachers,… Read more »

    Jennifer Pommer

    Two of these really resonate with me, numbers three and four. Number 3 does on so many levels, not just as a writer but as a reader, thinker, listener, researcher, etc. If the interest spark catches then I go for it immediately, if it’s possible, or wait till later. I believe that interest connects with something in a person’s past, present, or future, or even a hidden element of some sort. Number four resonates because ‘being charming, enjoying the moment’ isn’t that how a writer wants to feel while writing? Perhaps it’s an individual thing, but it would be interesting… Read more »

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