The kindness of writers

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 4, 2018

By Jenny Hubbard

Rowan Public Library

George Saunders, who won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, is big on kindness. When I read the convocation speech he gave at Syracuse University, which is now available to us in a book, “Congratulations, By The Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness,” which I highly recommend, it got me wondering: If you write fiction, as Saunders does beautifully, is there such a thing as being kind to your reader?

I happen to believe that there is. Kindness begins with respect, human being to human being. The writer of fiction should assume that the reader is an intellectual equal. Now, I know George Saunders knows more than I do, and when I read “Lincoln in the Bardo,” I relished the challenge of keeping up.

This masterpiece of a novel, about souls in a literal or figurative state of transition, tells the story — from a wildly original point of view — of Abraham Lincoln in the hours surrounding his beloved 11-year-old son Willie’s death from typhoid fever. Even though I wandered through some pages, disoriented as a blind squirrel looking for a nut, I trusted that Saunders would lead me to the light.

No one likes to be talked down to or treated with condescension. I used to tell my high-school English students, “In a three-page paper, you only need to say it one time. You don’t need to restate your thesis in the conclusion. Use that space and opportunity to tell me something related to your topic that I may not know.”

Saunders taught me a lot, not only about American history, but also about tone and characterization and pacing and structure. Fiction writers are teachers, too. I choose to read writers whose ability level is far beyond mine so that I might learn from them.

Kind writers allow the love for their craft to show. When I read Saunders, I’m reminded of my ninth-grade geometry teacher who could not hide her admiration for the beauty of a geometrical proof. Her voice would change; her eyes would shine. I witness that same kind of joy in “Lincoln in the Bardo.” Imagine Saunders’ delight when he discovered that, in 1861, the President received a letter that read, “Mr. Abe Lincoln, you don’t Resign, we are going to put a spider in your dumpling….” (There’s more to that letter that made my mouth fall open in horror; see page 233 for details.) As I read these words a second time, I can almost see Saunders hopping out of his desk chair and jumping around like he’d won the lottery.

Ali Smith is another awe-inspiring contemporary fiction writer easy to catch in the act of joy; her novel “How to be Both” is as inventive and challenging as “Lincoln in the Bardo.” I don’t know if Smith and Saunders have met, but I believe they’d become the fastest of friends.

A kind fiction writer embraces economy of language. One of the mantras of the editor and publisher should be, “No self-indulgence allowed.” A writer flaunting his flair with intricate similes or veering off on an unrelated tangent reveals a selfishness, not to mention a startling lack of awareness, that someone other than he will be reading the words.

With their enlarged empathy genes, kind writers know better than anyone that there are plenty of other A+ novels their readers could have chosen instead. “Kindness, it turns out, is hard,” Saunders told the student body at Syracuse, where he teaches creative writing — also hard if done well, and worth all the time and energy and sleepless nights when one reader says, “Those words on that page: I am pretty sure that you wrote them just for me.”

Southern Oral History Program Training: Headquarters, March 5, 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. A Federation of NC Historical Societies Workshop. Registration is required, and FNCHS requires a registration fee: For more information and to reserve your seat, visit  FNCHS Hometown History workshops, held at select locations, focus on oral history training to help equip participants with the interviewing and transcribing skills they need to collect valuable stories.

Organizing your Genealogy: Headquarters, March 17, 10 a.m. This class focuses on how to organize genealogical information, including forms, notebooks/binders and archival housing. The class will concentrate on software to organize data, vital records, photos and other important documentation. This event, co-hosted by the Genealogical Society of Rowan County and the Edith M. Clark History Room of RPL, is free and open to the public. Call 704-216-8253 for more information.

Learn.Act.Grow.: “Your Credit and Staying Protected,” South, March 5, 6 p.m. State Employees’ Credit Union will share information and resources on how to build a better credit report. They will discuss what credit is, why it is important, and what you can do to improve your score. This presentation will also provide step-by-step instructions on how to freeze your credit report, safeguard your personal information and contact the appropriate person if you become a victim of fraud or identity theft. Registration requested. To reserve your seat or to learn more, call 704-216-7730.

Spring Cleaning and Home Organization Hacks: Headquarters, March 5, 6-7:30 p.m. Get a head start on spring cleaning  and work smarter, not harder. Get tips on decluttering, inexpensive cleaning products, and how to upcycle and repurpose items for home storage and organization. Find out where to take unwanted household items for recycling and learn what else the library has to offer to spruce up your spring. You may even win a prize. Questions? Call Abby at 704-216-8248.

Classic Cinema Series: East, March 9, 2 p.m., See the 1959 Marilyn Monroe classic, “Some Like it Hot,” (PG, 132 min.) While the series is part of Adult Outreach Services and is designed for retired individuals, this free event is open to the public, all ages welcome. For more details, call 704-216-7842.

Adulting 101: 8. When you’re a kid, you think the grown ups have it all figured out, but now you’re almost a grown up and you have no idea what you’re doing. Join us for this program that will teach you about how to become a functioning adult without having to call your parents for help. March’s program will focus on finance, and April’s program will focus on food. Headquarters, March 13, 4:30 p.m.; East, March 12, April 9,  6:30 p.m.

Escape! at the Library: March’s escape room is the St. Patrick’s Day-themed “Shamrock Shenanigans.” See if you can solve the clues and puzzles to steal the leprechaun’s gold and escape the enchanted forest. March 19, 6:30 p.m., East branch, Rockwell; March 20, 4:30 p.m., headquarters; South, China Grove, March 21, 6 p.m.

Random Fandom: Do you have what it takes to be a super sleuth like Sherlock Holmes? We’ll test your detective skills and deductive reasoning with a series of puzzles and challenges, including a Sherlock Escape Room. East, April 2, 6:30 p.m.; headquarters, April 3, 4:30 p.m.; South, April 4, 6 p.m.

Book Bites Club: South, March 27, 6 p.m.  Free, open to the public. Join this free book club where we discuss a different book each month and serve refreshments loosely related to the theme. March’s title is Carson McCullers’ “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” Need more information? Call 704-216-7730.

Teen Board: Want to be part of a Teen Advisory Board and make decisions about upcoming teen library programs? Or just want to play some board games? Now you can do both. Headquarters, March 27, April 24, 4:30 p.m.

Teen Tech Week: Learn how to use a variety of new gadgets and technology. East, March 5, 6:30 p.m.; South, March 7, 6 p.m. Makerspace Takeover, headquarters, March 6, 4:30 p.m., call Hope, 704-216-8258.

Mario Kart Tournament: Headquarters, March 10, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Have you mastered Rainbow Road?  Can you conquer Toad Circuit?  Join us for a special Mario Kart Tournament, with free play afterwards. Registration is required, with 40 spaces available. Ages 7-17 are eligible to compete, though all ages are welcome to attend  and to participate in the free play afterwards. To register, call 704-216-8234.

Let’s Get Seussical: South, March 6, 6:30 p.m. Children of all ages are invited to celebrate Dr. Seuss and his very own “Day of all Days.” Call 704-216-7728 for more details.

Lego Saturday: March 10, 10 a.m.-noon. Legos available for creative free play. This program is for children.

Tail Waggin’ Tutors: 7 to 9 years old. Children can practice reading skills in a relaxed, dog-friendly atmosphere. Canine listeners provided by Therapy Dogs International. Headquarters, selected Tuesdays, 4 p.m. Call 704-216-8234 for details. East, selected Mondays, 3:30 p.m., Call 704-216-7842 for details.

Chapter Chats: Weekly book club for teens 14-17, primarily for participants with developmental or intellectual disabilities, though all are welcome. Mondays, 5 p.m. at East Branch, Rockwell. Contact Tammie Foster at 704-216-7842. March 5.

Displays: Headquarters, Rowan Doll Society; East, celebrate Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day by Tammie Foster; South, crochet art by Sheila Weaver and fairy gardens by Maria Cannizzaro.

Literacy: Call the Rowan County Literacy Council at 704-216-8266 for more information on teaching or receiving literacy tutoring for English speakers or for those for whom English is a second language.

Baby Time: Birth-23 months. Highly interactive 30-minute program for children and their adult caregivers. Headquarters, Wednesdays, 10 a.m.; East, Mondays, 10 a.m.; South, Tuesdays, 10:30 a.m.

Toddler Time: 18 to 35 months. Highly interactive 30-minute program for children and their adult caregivers. Headquarters, Tuesdays, 10:30 a.m.; East, Mondays, 11 a.m.; South, Wednesdays, 10:30 a.m.

Preschoolers: 3-5 years. Highly interactive 30-minute program for children and their adult caregivers. Headquarters, Thursdays, 10:30 a.m.; East, Thursdays, 10:30 a.m.; South, Mondays, 10 a.m.

Noodlehead Storytime: Pre-K to fifth grade. Interactive storytime. Headquarters, Thursday, 4 p.m.; East, Tuesdays 3:30 p.m.; South Wednesdays, 3:30 p.m.

Art programs: Pre-K to fifth grade. Learn art terms, techniques and work on art projects; 30-45 minutes. Art in the Afternoon, headquarters, Thursdays, 4:30 p.m.; Bethany’s Brushes, East, Tuesdays, 4 p.m.; Canvas Kids, South, Wednesdays, 4 p.m.