Rigorous and Iterative

Last weekend’s Guardian Review featured a long essay by George Saunders on the process of writing a novel. What Saunders wants to offer, as he announces at the beginning, is a description of “the actual process” of writing a novel and a refutation of the way the process exists in the cultural imagination. A work of art, Saunders complains, is “often discuss[ed]” as the product of an artist who “had something he ‘wanted to express,’ and then he just, you know… expressed it,” as if “art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.” In fact, Saunders confesses upon the publication of his début novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, he feels as lost at sea as Marilynne Robinson when he attempts “to talk about [my] process as if I were in control of it.”

I read the first two sections of Saunders’ essay with a chime of recognition ringing through my thoughts. As with most of Saunders’ work from the last decade or so, the essay quickly swerves into the maudlin territory of “the empathetic function in fiction” and the writer’s duty to set about “generously imagining” his or her readers. Before that point, though, it could equally stand as a description of my own process, even though the process itself is too intuitive and impressionistic to be worthy of that name:

My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.

“The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist,” Saunders says, taking part in a “rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system” and “always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?” That’s true in my experience as well, although I’d be careful to specify that “those thousands of incremental adjustments” don’t necessarily alter the course of “the story” so much as the course of the work. For me, in fact, even though incremental adjustments have already devoured the lion’s share of the time I’ve spent writing Winter Fugue, and even though I know that they will continue to do so as I revise the novel, the story is by far the least of what will be changed in the process.

I wrote the first draft of Winter Fugue over the course of maybe two weeks, producing something between 5,000 and 10,000 words per day. Those words were all extremely rough, hastily chosen, and nowhere near fit for purpose. What exactly would be their purpose? At a rudimentary level, the purpose of the words in a novel is to capture and hold a reader’s attention by conveying a series of narrative events. Often, however, those events can be conveyed with equal effectiveness through any number of different words. Finding the right words for a novel, and putting them in the right order, has less to do with selecting them for their effectiveness in ordering the events of a narrative and more to do with their own intrinsic aesthetic properties: their capacities for evocation and connotation, and especially the acoustic resonances of their prosody and tone.

I wouldn’t deny that words enable readers to envision the action of a narrative, but I’d say that to use them primarily for that purpose is to treat them as instrumental things in the utilitarian sense of the term. This is how I treat them when writing my first few drafts, before I switch on what Saunders calls the “forehead needle.” Once that needle starts flicking from side to side, once I set out on the “rigorous, iterative engagement with a thought system,” the narrative already has its shape and the needle registers only the relative merits of what words can do to a reader beyond conveying narrative events. My needle treats my words as instrumental in a musical sense, measuring their distance from or proximity to the sound, the susurration, I can still hear in my head.

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