Intuition plus Iteration: George Saunders on Writing as Editing

Make it better. Make it more specific.

We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he wanted to express, and then he just, you know, expressed it. That is, 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 beautiful and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully… In my view, all art begins in that instant of intuitive preference.

… Skipping over, for the moment, the first draft, assuming some existing text to work with, my method is this: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with a P on this side (“Positive”) and an N on that side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? If it drops into the N zone, admit it. And then, instantaneously, a fix might present itself—a cut, a rearrangement, an addition. There’s not an intellectual or analytical component to this; it’s more of an impulse, one that results in a feeling of “Ah, yes, that’s better.” … by instinct, in that moment.

And really, that’s about it. I go through the draft like that, marking it up, then go back and enter that round of changes, print it out, read it again, for as long as I still feel sharp—usually three or four times in a writing day. So: a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (lather, rinse, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts, over months or even years. Over time, like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.

Early in a story, I’ll have a few discrete blocks (blobs? swaths?) of loose, sloppy text. As I revise, those blocks will start to . . . get better. Soon, a block will start working—I can get all the way through it without a needle drop. The word that sometimes comes to mind is “undeniable,” as in “All right, this bit is pretty much undeniable,” which means that I feel that any reasonable reader would like it and would still be with me at the end of it.

I once heard the great Chicago writer Stuart Dybek say, “A story is always talking to you; you just have to learn to listen to it.” Revising like this is a way of listening to the story and of having faith in it: it wants to be its best self, and if you’re patient with it, in time, it will be. Essentially, the whole process is: intuition plus iteration.

A piece written and revised in this way, like one of those seed crystals in biology class, starts out small and devoid of intention and begins to expand, organically, reacting to itself, fulfilling its own natural energy. The beauty of this method is that it doesn’t really matter what you start with or how the initial idea gets generated. What makes you you, as a writer, is what you do to any old text, by way of this iterative method. This method overturns the tyranny of the first draft. Who cares if the first draft is good? It doesn’t need to be good, it just needs to be, so you can revise it. You don’t need an idea to start a story. You just need a sentence. Where does that sentence come from? Wherever. It doesn’t have to be anything special. It will become something special, over time, as you keep reacting to it. Reacting to that sentence, then changing it, hoping to divest it of some of its ordinariness or sloth, is . . . writing. That’s all writing is or needs to be. We’ll find our voice and ethos and distinguish ourselves from all the other writers in the world without needing to make any big overarching decisions, just by the thousands of small ones we make as we revise.

George Saunders – A Swim in the Pond in the Rain


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