George Saunders: what writers really do when they write
Fascinating long read in the Guardian by George Saunders:
Many years ago, during a visit to Washington DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt “on several occasions” to hold the boy’s body. An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà. I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt”, decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments. My novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is the result of that attempt, and now I find myself in the familiar writerly fix of trying to talk about that process as if I were in control of it.
We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.
The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.
A guy (Stan) constructs a model railroad town in his basement. Stan acquires a small hobo, places him under a plastic railroad bridge, near that fake campfire, then notices he’s arranged his hobo into a certain posture – the hobo seems to be gazing back at the town. Why is he looking over there? At that little blue Victorian house? Stan notes a plastic woman in the window, then turns her a little, so she’s gazing out. Over at the railroad bridge, actually. Huh. Suddenly, Stan has made a love story. Oh, why can’t they be together? If only “Little Jack” would just go home. To his wife. To Linda.
What did Stan (the artist) just do? Well, first, surveying his little domain, he noticed which way his hobo was looking. Then he chose to change that little universe, by turning the plastic woman. Now, Stan didn’t exactly decide to turn her. It might be more accurate to say that it occurred to him to do so; in a split-second, with no accompanying language, except maybe a very quiet internal “Yes.”
He just liked it better that way, for reasons he couldn’t articulate, and before he’d had the time or inclination to articulate them.
An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme: “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” Gerald Stern put it this way: “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking – then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” Einstein, always the smarty-pants, outdid them both: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”
How, then, to proceed? My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side (“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.
The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?
The interesting thing, in my experience, is that the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in “real life” – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining.
And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual.
Revising by the method described is a form of increasing the ambient intelligence of a piece of writing. This, in turn, communicates a sense of respect for your reader. As text is revised, it becomes more specific and embodied in the particular. It becomes more sane. It becomes less hyperbolic, sentimental, and misleading. It loses its ability to create a propagandistic fog. Falsehoods get squeezed out of it, lazy assertions stand up, naked and blushing, and rush out of the room.
Is any of this relevant to our current political moment?
When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame.
But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.
How was this done? Via pursuit of specificity. I turned my attention to Bob and, under the pressure of trying not to suck, my prose moved in the direction of specificity, and in the process my gaze became more loving toward him (ie, more gentle, nuanced, complex), and you, dear reader, witnessing my gaze become more loving, might have found your own gaze becoming slightly more loving, and together (the two of us, assisted by that imaginary grouch) reminded ourselves that it is possible for one’s gaze to become more loving.
Or we could just stick with “Bob was an asshole,” and post it, and wait for the “likes”, and for the pro-Bob forces to rally, and the anti-barista trolls to anonymously weigh in – but, meanwhile, there’s poor Bob, grieving and misunderstood, and there’s our poor abused barista, feeling crappy and not exactly knowing why, incrementally more convinced that the world is irrationally cruel.
What does an artist do, mostly? She tweaks that which she’s already done. There are those moments when we sit before a blank page, but mostly we’re adjusting that which is already there. The writer revises, the painter touches up, the director edits, the musician overdubs. I write, “Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch,” read that, wince, cross out “came into the room” and “down” and “blue” (Why does she have to come into the room? Can someone sit UP on a couch? Why do we care if it’s blue?) and the sentence becomes “Jane sat on the couch – ” and suddenly, it’s better (Hemingwayesque, even!), although … why is it meaningful for Jane to sit on a couch? Do we really need that? And soon we have arrived, simply, at “Jane”, which at least doesn’t suck, and has the virtue of brevity.
But why did I make those changes? On what basis?
On the basis that,