George Saunders, A Mastercraft in Writing and life in conversation with Max Porter.
Posted by celticman on Wed, 17 Feb 2021
Chop a Chekov story into pieces.
Echo of class at Syracuse. Break up a story, a page at a time. Forces us to ask that question, why do I keep reading?
If I read a paragraph I’m in a different place than before, where is it?
Granular level. More irritating if the story is really good (cf, working with a shit story).
Forcing the pause.
Sit there for a few minutes asking, where am I now? What bowling pins are up in the air?
Why do I want to stop? Why do I want to keep going?
Noting emotion, I’m irritated. Wondering why?
Setting the baseline. For the rest of the year, that’s the kind of way we’ll be reading.
Read something, react to it, and try to articulate it.
There’s an intuitive noting we’re always doing, even if we don’t articulate it.
At a very basic level, we like it or we don’t.
Success in creating digressions, emotions into something worthwhile?
Second kind of noting. Rather that yes/no, remembering those reactions. And articulating them.
You can’t go into a class and say, shut up and listen. You can say I’m bringing you an object I think is worthy of consideration. Let’s see what sparks fly.
Put them in the path things that can show them the writers they were meant to be.
Touch on the obstructions they may be having. Or they dynamic they’re trying to figure out between being funny and being serious.
The job is to put explosive devices in front of them.
You’re going to get a lot of pushback.
Students ask questions. One of the things about getting older is your intellectual sphincter tighten up and you’re already sure you already know everything. You’re reminded talent springs eternal.
For many years as a working class person I have a reaction and I stifle it, because it can’t be right. (I can’t be right).
You try to override your initial reaction with another reaction. Something you’ve heard by somebody smarter than you.
Intellectual falsification and it can make you a crazy person.
It’s like walking into a party. It seems like a good party. There must be something wrong with you. Do you acknowledge that unease? [Ignoring it is one way of coping].
You can go astray. You can read something with too much defensiveness for example. [I’m not going to like this].
At first teaching was just something I had to do to go on writing my books. When you’re faced with a roomful of strangers you have some choices.
You’re involved in an active projection about those people. Do they hate you and find you stupid? Or are they a bunch of friends willing to be converted.
Connecting across age, gender and class, one of the best ways is looking at a made-up story.
What can happen in a room when the person at the front, trusts them.
In the US there’s been a steady devaluing of certain areas of the intellectual life. Reading and writing. Literature is this gauzy, cute, accessory. Nothing to do with the work of the real world.
Master and Man by Tolstoy.
Editing and re-drafting not the story, but yourself.
40 years pass and Tolstoy writes another story set in a snowstorm, Master and Man.
Indebted to the first story, but nothing like it.
Read them back to back. The difference is in what Tolstoy learned in those 40 years.
The latter is a more highly organized system.
What we’re trying to accomplish. We’re trying to take our first thing (draft) and trying to make it more highly organized.
Eg. Causality is tighter. Less waste. The thing is more universal. More itself. Framing greater truths.
Something weird about revising and the way I’ve come to understand it is you’re giving yourself chances, thousands of chances, to re-decide things at the phrase level.
Read every day with a pen in hand, and deciding whether I like it or not. And change it. Be a little bolder.
That process causes the work to be more elevated. Smarter. Have more causation. Weirdly, it causes it to ask better questions. And to ask those questions more precisely.
What I try to do in my work is recognise micro-opinions, do I recognize them in my work, do I recognize them when they appear?
Am I fearless in honouring them? Am I playful?
Commit to micro-decisions and the thing will become more like you.
Reconsideration machines. Ghosts, but literary ghosts. Peering over your shoulder. Your previous versions are haunted by your past versions.
Dialogue with previous selves.
Something close to intuition and iteration.
The great thing is you have to go with your intuition, but you have to come back to it. You’re letting a bunch of different yous act on the text.
It’s not your job to decide what kind of writer you are. It’s your job to write. I don’t have to be committed to theme, for example. I just have to be committed to making those choices again and again. Style will come out.
I’d a particular way of thinking that I thought that was me. Sarcastic way of seeing the world. You can step out of it. And that can happen at this late-stage revision. Literature become more than literature.
Milan Kundera, Super-personal wisdom finding its way in. Something we don’t have access in our daily life somehow find their way in during the cracks during revision.
Editing and writing gives me ideas how my mind works. My baseline idea is the ruminant part of your mind goes quieter. Monkey mind gets quieter. And in that quiet something else comes up.
There’s a little part of me that says, ‘Ooh, the New Yorker will love that paragraph’.
I need to say to myself. OK, step aside, back to the story.
To be aware of those micro-fluctuations in your mind. Like a smiling uncle saying, yeh, yeh, yeh, but you can’t deny it, because you need all of your energy to do this work.
Different minds and martial of this grand parade in your head. The mind is always in flux.
Principal of fiction, if you can get your stories to ask a valid question.
Our first draft is mostly projection and to revise it is a useful thing.
Mood boarding, the changing of the atmospheric lights.
Ben: I wonder if being in proximity to the mystery is useful. Being in proximity.
What I’d say to my younger writer self? Keep going. Whatever I’d have told him, he’d have rejected. The magic of time. We create these problems with our minds. And we solve them with our minds. The 10 000 hours of practice Malcolm Gladwell talks about. Yeh, you’re on the right track, but you’re ego is out of control.
The brain-dead megaphone essay. We should always consider the source and the motivation. He wanted you to buy, but mostly the agenda is to do something lovely.
Social media. The agenda is to be liked. Somebody’s popping something out of their butt. Encourages you to project incorrectly about people.
Short stories change your perceptions.
Revising, like Buddhist meditation. Opening the door to it being no good. Asking the question how can it be better (how can I be better)?
Accept what is. A saner base for being what may be.
Teaching is the kids will get it- eventually- they might not get it at first.
Trick of teaching. Try to imagine those beautiful 19 year olds as being the 40 year old they will become.
That person needs those stories. You’re doing them a favour be seeding in…a love for this work.
The gentleness of Russian writer in dealing with silly people.
First draft, slighty cartoonish, then as you re-draft that slightly low character comes up a bit.
Chekov, taking somebody you may have overlooked and take them to a higher level.
Is your story responding honestly to the things you put in motion? Are your characters?
Kindness (of character) requires exactitude.
Flannery O’Connor always fierce in her exactitude. The way people are.