He remembered me from a brief email correspondence we had a couple years ago, because he's just that kind of person. His sincerity almost makes me weepy. He talked about ghosts, Trump, Huckleberry Finn, elevating the energy of a story, how "imagination" is a technical response to a technical problem, and how important/difficult it is to ensure all the "boxes" you've opened in your story are thoroughly explored, lest your reader notice you haven't explored one and "lose a bit of respect" for you.
Go figure George Saunders' thoughts on revising are the opposite of boring and unfeeling. Instead he went and made me cry.
But why did I make those changes? On what basis?
On the basis that, if it’s better this new way for me, over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there.
This is a hopeful notion, because it implies that our minds are built on common architecture – that whatever is present in me might also be present in you. “I” might be a 19th-century Russian count, “you” a part-time Walmart clerk in 2017, in Boise, Idaho, but when you start crying at the end of my (Tolstoy’s) story “Master and Man”, you have proved that we have something in common, communicable across language and miles and time, and despite the fact that one of us is dead.
Another reason you’re crying: you’ve just realised that Tolstoy thought well of you – he believed that his own notions about life here on earth would be discernible to you, and would move you.
Tolstoy imagined you generously, you rose to the occasion.
We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties – the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”
"The truth is, you leap into something and then for (in this case) five years, you keep leaping, making tens of thousands of intuitive choices, but you’re not really sure why you’re making those choices, except that they seem, in the moment, to produce more beauty – and then, at the end, you look up and you’ve made something that is the sum total of all those choices, made over those many years. The wonderful thing, and the thing that keeps me writing, is the hope that the result is somehow better than you, the writer: more alert, kinder, funnier, more big-hearted, more big-minded, and that working on it has enlarged your view of things – made the world seem wilder and more confusing than before, albeit lovelier."
George Saunders was interviewed by Deborah Treisman about his latest New York short story, Mother's Day. The following paragraph resonated with me, about how important it is to not be bullied by intention when starting out with a story.
It’s funny with stories (or, at least, with mine)—they are, of course, going to be “about” something and appear to present certain views re those things, but if I start out with that sort of intention the story never proves interesting enough to finish. What seems to happen is that, while I’m concentrating on the more mundane technical aspects (working on individual lines and the point-to-point logic and velocity and so on), a certain set of meanings will begin to come forward. So I’m dimly aware of those but trying not to be too aware of those, lest the story become only about those, if you see what I mean. It’s really only when the story is done (like, in this case, within the last week or so) that I can do much direct thinking about what themes it might be taking on, and then—weirdly—the thematic stuff seems to have taken care of itself. The story is about something . . . but hopefully more than I planned or could see at the outset.
Lately I've been having great conversations with my students about why we write. There are endless responses to this question, but one that pops up again and again is the idea of "being part of a conversation". The "conversation" meaning any number of things. I think most of the time it's "the conversation about what it means to be human".
But lately I've been wondering if this is something I need to reframe for myself. When you're first starting out, developing your writing practice, doing all that lonely work of trying to find your voice (which is buried underneath clunky dialogue and bad impersonations of George Saunders or Heather O'Neill), if part of you is actively writing to be "part of a conversation", you run the risk of writing for an outer audience, no matter how much you convince yourself you're not. Because your stated end goal involves an audience.
I had this mini revelation while folding laundry last night: I think I want to write to have a conversation with myself. Or, at least I think that's what I've actually done in the stories I love the most, the ones that tug at me the hardest. I was writing to myself. Full stop.
When I write this way, I think it will move me more, which in turn, will move the reader more, if and when the story goes out into the world.
Once it's out there, then it can be part of "the conversation". It should be part of the conversation. But I think until then, a story needs to be a conversation a writer has with herself.