Between Mind and Matter

— Feb 2013

This George Saunders interview with his long-time editor is an amazing read, and pairs well with this conversation about footnotes:

Ward: Let’s talk about nonfiction. I spent 15 years in magazines, editing stories, and I never encountered another writer who worked like you. Your drafts were incredible. You delivered a version of the story—often a little longer than we’d anticipated, but still: Jesus—and a companion file of “outtakes.” This file consisted of 2,000-3,000 words of perfectly polished sections you had taken out of the story, and yet, obviously kind of wished you had kept in. Otherwise, why the crystalline outtake file? What a beautiful system. So the process, for me, became merging documents, essentially: picking my favorite outtakes, and working them into the final story. How did you come up with that system? I noticed you also do it with some of your short stories, too. Isn’t it hard to put something back into a story once you’ve taken it out?

Saunders: It’s a little like packing for a trip. First you lay out everything that might possibly be useful, with no thought about the size of your suitcase. Then, look at your suitcase. In the case of narrative, there’s a certain obligation to keep the pace up and have each section or subsection be doing something. The ideal thing would be: no merely decorative sections. Every section has to (1) be good in its own right (funny, or sad, or fast, moving, whatever) and (2) advance the story in a meaningful way. With that criteria in mind, some bits are just … goiter-esque. Even if they’re good. If they’re not functional, they’re optional.

I love that Saunders just makes up the word “goiter-esque”. Your immune system is trying to kill your thyroid gland, so it responds by puffing up more and more. The same thing happens in your writing when different parts are at war with each other. So Saunders pulls those parts out into an outtakes file – he’s not killing his babies, he’s just putting them into separate jars so they no longer hurt the body. But by keeping them alive, even in some form of stasis, it lets him build them up as much as any other part of his writing.

One of the things that frustrate me about writing on a computer is that there aren’t many artifacts that surround the process. (If you writing by hand, there’s that whole bin of crumpled outlines and false starts.) I miss coming from a studio culture where you can take in someone’s space and see all the half-finished, broken thoughts and ideas that they’ve been grappling with, and all the pieces of inspiration they’re working from. The important part is being able to pick those things up, move them around, palm them and feel their weight. The sense memory can be as electrifying as the idea.

I should point out that a space like this isn’t and shouldn’t be public. Seeing a person’s brain manifest in the open takes an extreme amount of trust and safety. Think of it as a studio visit:

…sharing his or her sanctuary is always a very personal experience for the artist, no matter how impersonal the setting—even if the place is swarming with assistants. A studio visit exposes the direct link between an artist and his work. You might learn about the process behind the artist’s work, or be made aware of artifacts that inspired him (or her). Either way, it works to your advantage to be generous with your time.