Yesterday, Twitter announced its switch from stars to hearts, thereby allowing people to like, even love a Tweet, rather than rank it as a favorite. “You might like a lot of things,” said Twitter Product Manager Akarshan Kumar, but the heart, “is more expressive, enabling you to convey a range of emotions and easily connect with people.” In other words, Twitter–the conduit through which people’s entire lives have been dismantled from mob-mentality Tweet-retaliation–is seeing an upshot to being a little nicer. And, sure, it’s financially based (like everything is), but it still speaks to what might be a larger movement at hand.
Recently, I was happy to see that a source who is known for being even more self-aware than Twitter–George Saunders–thinks so, too. The New Yorker ran an essay by Saunders titled “My Writing Education: A Timeline,” which is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, A Manner of Being: Writers On Their Mentors. Saunders writes about the experience of having a mentor (in his case, Tobias Wolff), and how the virtue that makes Wolff such an exceptional mentor and writer is his ability to feel and express warmth for others. Because in its very best iteration, writes Saunders, “literature is a form of fondness-for-life. It is love for life taking verbal form.”
Saunders offers guidance here: In order to write something that reveals a love of life, you have to actually love it. And this, he says, requires something even more fundamental: Being nice to other people. This mandate might run directly counter to what many of us (including, at one time, Saunders) have believed, i.e. that true artists are not only self-loathing jerks, but Saunders will convince you otherwise, as his own mind was once changed from observing Wolff one evening when Saunders was at Wolff’s house in grad school to watch A Night at the Opera.
“Mostly I watch Toby, with his family. He clearly adores them, takes visible pleasure in them, dotes on them. I have always thought great writers had to be dysfunctional and difficult, incapable of truly loving anything, too insane and unpredictable and tortured to cherish anyone, or honor them, or find them beloved.
“Wow, I think, huh.”
Saunders soon discovers that the most powerful writers he knows (including his other writing mentor, Doug Unger) were marked most by their kindnesses, gentle gestures that don’t detract from a powerful person but rather increase his or her capabilities.
Once, Saunders overhears Wolff call his son “Dear,” and, suddenly–an epiphany–the world looks different:
“All kinds of windows fly open in my mind. It is powerful to call your son “dear,” it is powerful to feel that the world is dear, it is powerful to always strive to see everything as dear. Toby is a powerful man: in his physicality, in his experiences, in his charisma. But all that power has culminated in gentleness. It is as if that is the point of power: to allow one to access the high registers of gentleness.”
A written story doesn’t have to do much more than lay out a narrative arc. But a story written by a person who is both intellectually powerful and has access to the highest registers of human gentleness, that story has the potential to communicate something different; it can help us see beyond our own noses and opinions, to get at the goodness of life.
“A story’s positive virtues are not different from the positive virtues of its writer. A story should be honest, direct, loving, restrained… A story can be a compressed bundle of energy, and, in fact, the more it is thoughtfully compressed, the more power it will have.”
Best case scenario, that directed, loving expression of life can convince us, as it did Saunders, that the best outcomes are brought about by kindness, that the stories that contain kindness will still have all the nuance and complications and power that we want out of our narratives—and our lives.