Tolstoy thought well of 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.”

This story's got a finger up my nostril and is leading me around

I recently pulled a story out of hibernation (AKA: a folder on my desktop called 'Don't'). I had forced it into a slumber because, like a bad relationship at the very end, everything the story did annoyed the absolute stuffing out of me. (If my relationship with this story had an anthem, it'd be this.) It was crawling around under my skin like some alien insect on The X-Files. I let it go on for far too long, even though I knew better. Even though the healthy part of me was saying, "Drawer this hoser!"

The good news is that when I pulled it out all these months later, I didn't totally hate it. In fact, it started speaking to me, telling me what it needed, and even what it was concerned with trying to say. And me, being the good little minion that I am, got back to work.

Yadda yadda yadda, the story is at it again. Every time I think it's done, it goes and becomes something else. I sent it out to a Dear Writer Friend, whose advice was: "Depopulate!" They used the word 'disoriented'. 

But they also said they like it. A lot. Which gives me those tingles on the top of my head. 

So I'm back to work, where the story's got a finger up my nostril and is leading me around. Even though it's not my favourite thing I've ever written, when it finally settles down, sending it out into the world will actually feel like my biggest achievement yet. 

Mad Men's Matthew Weiner: "Why don't you wait and see what they find on their own?"

I read a great interview with Mad Men writer-producer Matthew Weiner (he eschews the term 'showrunner'). While lots of his responses tickled me as a fan, what stuck with me as a writer was this little nugget: 

"You work on a script or story for three months and then you hand it to somebody and they have 24 hours with it, and you're like, "Why don't they get it?" Well, guess what! A) You might not have achieved what you want to do in terms of clarity, and B) Why don't you wait and see what they find on their own?"

A) is a reality I'm All Too Familiar With and already spend enough time whingeing about, so I was most interested in his take on B). Weiner goes on to share a recent example (which I won't for spoiler reasons). But in short, the way the actors interpreted a scene was different than how he'd intended for it to be performed. And it became more "real" (his words). So even Weiner— who has created characters so layered and full-feeling that they've become archetypes in our culture, and who knows his characters so intimately— still doesn't always know what a scene or storyline is really about until he hands it off to someone else.

Sending one's work out for editing/interpretation is equal parts thrilling and nauseating. I don't know about you, but each time I hit 'send', this little voice (which, FYI, sounds an awful lot like Marcel the Shell with Shoes On) pipes up from the dead centre of my gut and says: "My gosh, I hope they pick up what I've put down there." But lately, I've noticed a follow up exclamation, where the emphasis is taken off of me entirely, and instead the little voice says, "I wonder what they'll see that I can't see yet."