George Saunders makes me want to be a better woman

I’m more of an Esquire girl myself, but last night I read George Saunders’ 2007 GQ travelogue about visiting the Dominican Republic and Africa with Bill Clinton, and I was shaken in my boots. I’d read some of Saunders’ fiction, but not his essays, and this one reminded me of a less tangential David Foster Wallace, like a pared down version of the latter’s Straight Talk Express McCain chronicle from 2000 (unabridged in Consider the Lobster as “Up, Simba”), which I also loved. Unfortunately Saunders’ “Bill Clinton, Public Citizen” is not available online (I found it in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008), but you can read the accompanying interview here. I mean, I didn’t, but you can.

The “Public Citizen” piece is nominally about Bill Clinton, ostensibly about the good works of the Clinton Foundation, and essentially about what individual human beings are capable of accomplishing through empathy and diligence. At the end of the essay, Saunders is flying on a private jet back to the States, luxuriously bypassing customs and long lines and bland airplane food. He contemplates his “undeserved good luck.” He writes:

A friend’s grandmother, on her deathbed, said: I should have forgiven more.

What I’m afraid I’ll say on my deathbed is: I should have done more to help other people and less to feed my own ego.

Up here, my ego has been good and fed.

Looking down at the mountaintop, I say a little prayer that all this luck will make me more compassionate instead of more full of shit.

I’m a sucker for any author who performs a moral function through writing, who somehow – with or without an agenda – inspires us to think bigger, think more lovingly. And one who has the insight to know that he’s not always authentic or above fault himself. In this interview with Vice Magazine, Jeff Johnson asks Saunders who sees the first drafts of his work. “My wife,” he answers.

She has great judgment and honesty and, of course, knows me completely, all my tricks and falsenesses. And she has a brilliant impatience with the Merely Artsy—she wants stories to do very high-level moral work (as do I) and she reminds me of this, and forces me to go back to this higher-ground when I’m feeling tired and self-satisfied too early.

So now, thanks to George Saunders, not only do I want to go out and heal sick children, I also want to be a better writer. And find myself a wife. There goes my summer.

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