At The Guardian, George Saunders reflects on his writing process. The magical, romantic notion where fully formed art leaps from the author’s brain on to the page? It dishonors the writer, the reader, and the work. In reality, it takes “hundreds of drafts” and “thousands of incremental adjustments” to form a story into a “hopeful thing.”
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.
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.
Why do I feel this to be a hopeful thing? The way this pattern thrillingly completed itself? It may just be—almost surely is—a feature of the brain, the byproduct of any rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system. But there is something wonderful in watching a figure emerge from the stone unsummoned, feeling the presence of something within you, the writer, and also beyond you – something consistent, wilful, and benevolent, that seems to have a plan, which seems to be: to lead you to your own higher ground.
George Saunders reflects on his writing process, suggesting that the magical, romantic notion where fully formed art leaps from the author’s brain on to the page does the writer, the reader, and the work a disservice. In reality, it takes “hundreds of drafts” and “thousands of incremental adjustments” to form a story into a “hopeful thing.”
Rumpus: There are so many characters in this story. Did these characters flow out of you during the writing process or were they more of a conscious creation? Did you think, “I need a character that represents this or experiences this kind of suffering?”
Saunders: No, it was definitely the first thing. My general approach to writing fiction is that you try to have as few conceptual notions as possible and you just respond to the energy that the story is making rather than having a big over plan. I think if you have a big over plan, the danger is that you might just take your plan and then you bore everybody. I always joke that it’s like going on a date with index cards. You know, at 7:30 p.m. I should ask about her mother. You keep all the control to yourself but you are kind of insulting to the other person.
Rumpus: I don’t want to leave the topic of your book, but I love what you said about starting a piece with as few conceptual ideas as possible. Do you approach nonfiction the same way? For the New Yorker story you wrote about Trump, for example, did you begin with a similar kind of open-mindedness?
Saunders: It’s a different form of that. With nonfiction, I go in trying to be really honest about what my preconceptions are. In the Trump piece, I knew I didn’t like Trump and I confessed that to myself and also to my interviewees. I’d always say, “I’m a liberal and I’m left of Gandhi and I don’t like Trump and this article is me trying to understand why you do.”
My theory for nonfiction is that nobody can be free of some kind of conceptions about whatever story they’re writing. But if you can find a way to build those into the story, then the story becomes a process of deconstructing and heightening and sometimes changing those notions and that makes dramatic tension. The initial statement of your position, and then letting reality act on you to change it, is pretty good storytelling.
All I really know in nonfiction is that when I come home, I’ve got all these notes and I’m trying to figure out what actually happened to me. I usually kind of know what happened, but as you work through the notes, you find that certain scenes write well and some don’t even though they should. Those make a constellation of meaning that weirdly ends up telling you what you just went through. It’s a slightly different process, but still there’s mystery because when you’re bearing down on the scenes, sometimes you find out they mean something different than what you thought.
In addition to plenty of great advice for aspiring writers, George Saunders reflects on the creative process for his new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, the mystery of the “constellation of meaning” — the interviews, notes, and scenes that once distilled become his nonfiction work, and on bold compassion as the right course of resistance under a Trump presidency.
A little over three years ago I asked George Saunders whether I could sit in on one of his MFA classes at Syracuse, and, flabbergastingly, he said okay.
This opportunity seemed particularly valuable at a time when education privatizers and MOOC-peddlers were busily attempting to equate “education” with “that which can be bubbled in on a Scantron form.” Saunders’ work is very particularly about human qualities, fallibility, the unexpected; dissonance, misapprehensions; comedy; mystery; beauty. Immeasurable and incommensurate things. What he’d already taught me, just as a reader of his fiction, was and remains the diametric opposite of anything you could answer by multiple choice.
MFA studies consist largely of working on individual students’ writing, in conditions too sensitive for me to be barging in on with a tape recorder. But George’s students were also required to take “ENG 650 (Forms): The Russian Short Story in Translation (for Writers),” a class devoted to learning structures and techniques that might effectively be pilfered from the Russian masters—and that one, I could attend.
My instructions were as follows:
Syllabii attached – looks like you’ll be there for the Chekhov “About Love” trilogy – usually the best class of the year. It’s Bowne Hall 101 or 110 – it says on the sheet. The easiest thing to do is to park at the University Sheraton and have them give you a campus map – it’s a short (though uphill) walk… I’d say read the stories just a few days before and if you really want to do it the way we do it, write a little essay on each, or on the three (they’re linked).
I’ve wrestled with how to write about the resulting experience in a way that would most clearly transmit the benefits I received to readers. I’ve reread the stories many times in the years since, and it’s always acutely pleasurable—increasingly so, in fact. The repetition in slightly different circumstances is something like the telling of a literary rosary; the same ideas seen and considered through all different prisms of personality, time and circumstance grant a newly deepened awareness each time. This is the sensation I sought to reproduce in what follows.
In the end I made this kit, which provides a number of methods by which you can experience The Little Trilogy, and George Saunders’ teaching methods, on your own, according to your own purposes.
I’m interested in the way that Americans — well, probably people in general — tend to address their anxiety with yap. I know I do. This tendency to lack the self-confidence to simply not do anything — to refrain, to be silent, not react, not shoot, just stay out of the shit — that seems to be an American thing. It’s like we can’t tolerate being sidelined or inactive or inessential to any moment. We always have to be active and at the center of things. That’s a big generality, but I do sometimes wonder why it is that, if, say, a European gets pissed off, he gets drunk and falls asleep on the curb — takes himself out of the action. He can tolerate being abased, somewhat. But an American guy (again, generalizing like a big dog), especially your generic white guy, doesn’t like that. It’s as if he can’t say: “I am small/minor/temporarily losing.” If humiliated, he has to go out and do something. It’s like the worst thing that could happen is that, for a while, he might be…passive, or absent, or quiet, or inessential.
Except for me, of course. I am one of those virtuous, self-possessed white guys.
“Ward: A lot of people say to me, ‘God, it must be so fun to work with George Saunders. Do you even have to edit him at all?’ And they say it like they assume you shun all editing, or don’t allow editing, which is always really funny to me, because you are a person who craves feedback, who wants to be pushed and challenged and sent off in new directions. This all sounds self-serving, I realize, so I should add: Of course, at this stage, you don’t need an editor. But you want an editor. Why?
“Saunders: No, I definitely need and enjoy having an editor, and for the exact reasons you state. There’s a really nice moment in the life of a piece of writing where the writer starts to get a feeling of it outgrowing him—or he starts to see it having a life of its own that doesn’t have anything to do with his ego or his desire to ‘be a good writer.’ It’s almost like an animal starts to appear in the stone and then it starts to move, and you, the writer, are rooting for it so hard—but may not be able to see everything clearly after working on that stone for so long.”
“We talked for a while about his relationship to Wallace. For all the ways in which their fiction might seem to be working similar themes, they were, Saunders said, ‘like two teams of miners, digging at the same spot but from different directions.’ He described making trips to New York in the early days and having ‘three or four really intense afternoons and evenings’ with, on separate occasions, Wallace and Franzen and Ben Marcus, talking to each of them about what ‘the ultimate aspiration for fiction was.’ Saunders added: ‘The thing on the table was emotional fiction. How do we make it? How do we get there? Is there something yet to be discovered? These were about the possibly contrasting desire to: (1) write stories that had some sort of moral heft and/or were not just technical exercises or cerebral games; while (2) not being cheesy or sentimental or reactionary.'”