In the same way George Saunders' printed word was powerful enough to earn him the 2017 Man Booker Prize, the author's spoken words to Harrison High School students on Friday left an indelible impression.
"He was really inspirational," said sophomore Siam Fisher, who read aloud a piece she wrote on anorexia after studying Saunders' 2013 convocation speech on the need for kindness.
"I've always wanted to be a writer, and when he gave me advice it was positive and made me feel really secure and happy and more capable," she said.
Saunders, who teaches at Syracuse University, stopped by Harrison High School to shoot the breeze with about 50 English students, answer their questions and impart life lessons about writing, perseverance, heroes, self-love, failure, power and unfairness.
Saunders was in town to speak at the Converge Lecture Series Friday night, in a sold-out show of 300 at The Pinery. The nonprofit started one year ago to bring prominent writers to Colorado Springs, and for the first time, is working with students. Six Harrison students will be selected as fellows and be paired with mentors at local colleges and universities and provided scholarship money.
"He's done a great job of defining the human experience," Sam Stephenson, founder of the Converge Lecture Series, said of Saunders, whom he invited to Colorado Springs on a blind query because he's one of his favorite authors.
Growing up in a blue-collar family on Chicago's south side, Saunders said he enjoys talking to high school students because a teacher changed his life.
"This high school teacher saw something in a piece of writing I did, and he got me to go to college," Saunders said.
He attended the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. As a student, he was sick for a year after he contracted a virus from swimming in polluted water while working on an oil rig in Asia, giving him a "sneak peek" at old age.
"It's a Christian insight - Jesus knew what it was like to suffer and be weak," Saunders said. "If we could understand the world better, we'd be kinder."
Walking in the shoes of others helps tell stories from the inside out, not vice versa, he told students, and the spirit of play that arises when children goof around and build something using blocks is "what art is all about."
"When I'm writing, I try to get in that playful space," Saunders said. "Inspiration comes in the doing."
He describes his material as "working-class stories that are fast, a little naughty and funny."
Freshman Amelie Blackham said she will remember Saunders' comments about how human beings are born with a mind, but you don't have to be stuck with it your whole life.
"It reminded me of your destiny and fate and how people are born a certain way but they can change that," she said. "It relates to me because I'm awful at some things I'd like to be good at, and that doesn't have to be the way it is."
Education expands the mind and provides "a better chance of succeeding," Saunders told students. Having positive energy and faith in yourself also help, he said.
"Perseverance means giving yourself a chance over and over again," he said.
Saunders has written numerous essays and short stories. His surreal, experimental first novel, "Lincoln in the Bardo," which depicts a grieving Abraham Lincoln as he visits the crypt that holds the body of his 11-year-old son who died of typhoid fever and the ghosts who appear, was cited as being unusual and innovative in winning the British equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in October.
Harrison freshman Jose Loa said Saunders imparts "a lot of good advice."
What will he carry with him?
"There's times you really want to give up, but you don't, so keep going and strive for the best," Jose said.
Amelie said the experience made her see a famous person "more like a real person."