George Saunders: what writers really do when they write
A series of instincts, thousands of tiny adjustments, hundreds of drafts … What is the mysterious process writers go through to get an idea on to the page?
According to Donald Barthelme: “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” Gerald Stern put it this way: “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking — then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” Einstein, always the smarty-pants, outdid them both: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”
I write, “Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch,” read that, wince, cross out “Came into the room” and “Down” and “Blue” and the sentence becomes “Jane sat on the couch -” and suddenly, it’s better, although why is it meaningful for Jane to sit on a couch? Do we really need that? And soon we have arrived, simply, at “Jane”, which at least doesn’t suck, and has the virtue of brevity.
How is a novel made from one guy in a graveyard at night? Unless we want to write a 300-page monologue in the voice of Lincoln or inject a really long-winded and omniscient gravedigger into the book, we need some other presences there in the graveyard.
The reader will sense the impending problem at about the same moment the writer does, and part of what we call artistic satisfaction is the reader’s feeling that just the right cavalry has arrived, at just the right moment.
Originally published at Cogly.