Feb 7, 2022Liked by George Saunders

I like to keep this quote in mind: “If you understand your painting beforehand, you may as well not paint it.” Salvador Dali

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I randomly picked the page in the Christmas Present stave, where Scrooge observes how the Cratchit family spend Christmas. It’s the scene that contains Tiny Tim saying “God bless us every one!”


My overall takeaway is that the changes increase emotional intensity, empathy, compassion – and sentimentality.

BTW -- In an excellent recent episode of In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg about A Christmas Carol, the panel of academics had an interesting discussion about sentimentality – rescuing it I think from our usual deprecation of the idea. The link is to the BBC page but you can get it wherever you download podcasts.


First draft version, complete text I examined:


He sat beside his father <close?>, <illegible word>. Bob held his withered <strikeout>hand<strikeout> little hand in his, as if he <illegible> wished to keep the child and feared <he> might be taken from him.

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before. “I hope <the boy?> will live?”

First published edition version:


He sat very close to his father's side upon his little stool. Bob held his withered little hand in his, as if he loved the child, and wished to keep him by his side, and dreaded that he might be taken from him.

"Spirit," said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, "tell me if Tiny Tim will live."


My comments:


From: He sat beside his father <close?>, <illegible word>...

To: He sat very close to his father's side...

“He sat very close to his father’s side": intensifies loving connection between Tiny Tim and Father.

2. Addition of " upon his little stool."

An introduced object - such a tender diminutive for us to rest our eyes on. Tim needs that stool because he’s lame. I bet no other child in this very poor family has their own stool--or begrudges Tim his. We need the stool to help our tears to flow.

3. Quick intensification of heart rending tenderness

Bob held his withered hand

Bob held his withered little hand

Dickens made this change in-line – swiftly – as he wrote. He knew immediately what to add.

4. Different tone of Scrooge’s question re Tiny Tim’s fate:

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before. “I hope <the boy?> will live?”

"Spirit," said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, "tell me if Tiny Tim will live."

What a difference! – first draft he goes for a fearful, tentative question. Scrooge is afraid to ask, afraid of the answer

Second draft – a demand! Scrooge is full of passion – compassion – he can’t bear the thought of Tim dying now.

Bonus material:

And of course the ghost pushes the dagger deep into Scrooge’s heart – skewering him with his former heartless words -- I’ll just put what comes next in the first edition text here to give you the pleasure of it:


"I see a vacant seat," replied the Ghost, "in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future,

the child will die."

"No, no," said Scrooge. "Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared."

"If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race," returned the Ghost, "will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

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I just finished listening to the Barthelme lecture. Holy cow! It will take those of us of a certain age to know just how the postmodernists dominated literature and literary criticism for a good part of the late 20th century. While I love his essential philosophical point, it reminds me of reading him and his contemporaries through my coming of age and just how darn intimating it all was. It was so intimidating, in fact, that I was afraid to write for a quarter century thinking I could never participate in deconstruction or reconstruction or whatever it was being called that month when all I cared about was simple narratives. So, thank you, George, you have given me literary CPR. There is hope that a clean narrative is its own reward. On a side note that isn't a side note, I just read Tobias Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain" because it was mentioned in an article in the New Yorker about George's early career. I can only reiterate what someone on Goodreads said about it, "Holy Shit!" In my opinion, it just may be a perfect short story. I wonder how many revisions that went through or if it just came out perfect?

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Feb 6, 2022Liked by George Saunders

Starting a band called “Gust of Maleness.” Who’s in?

Funny you mention Merton—I was thinking of the “apophatic” tradition of Christian spirituality, which approaches God through negation. We might approach writing in the same way, negating “dogmas” (or our limited sense of them) to get at what is real and fresh.

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One of my favorite lines in A Christmas Carol (which I've maybe read more than any other book in my life except possibly The Lord of the Rings) is this one, from when the Ghost of Christmas Past draws back his bed curtains: "...and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow." I remember my dad reading it aloud to me, and getting chills, and believing as I still do that Dickens was indeed and has been every time I've read these lines standing by me, a ghostly, benevolent, amused, and reassuring presence.

Here is one change I can make out from the manuscript (I LOVE this exercise): "unearthly visitor" was originally an instance of the word "Spirit" (a word Dickens would find necessary to use many times in this story). "Unearthly visitor" gives it, well, a more unearthly aura--maybe sometimes two words (adjective noun) do actually work better than one noun on its own--and avoids overusing "Spirit." It also looks (though I could be wrong about this) that the part about being as close to him as the author is to me, the reader, was added as a revision--an excellent addition!

Also, I really like Dickens' unusual-to-my-modern-eyes use of capital letters in words like "Ghost," "Spirit," or (on page 28 of Stave II) "Hope" and "Truth", words used by his fiancee as she gently lets him go. Amazing to see these in the manuscript itself, just as you say already there. I'm going to keep exploring this.

George, was Dickens' great Ghost story an inspiration for your tale of Lincoln and Willie? I can't tell you how much I love "Lincoln in the Bardo." Thank you for this book, which has made my life better and more hopeful. Here's my review of it on Goodreads--I always hoped you'd read this review. Lincoln has been special to me since I was 10. I often feel him at my elbow too--I guess there are worse Ghosts to have about you than Charles Dickens and Abraham Lincoln: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1925830713?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1

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What I value most in Swim and in these "lessons" is learning to be a better reader. Thanks!

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Feb 6, 2022·edited Feb 6, 2022

It's Dickens's birthday's tomorrow! -

"On February 7, 1812, Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England. In 1833, at the tender age of 21, he submitted his first story (originally titled “A Dinner at Poplar Walk” but published as “Mr. Minns and his Cousin”) to a literary journal, and in 1836, he published his first book, Sketches by Boz, a collection of short pieces he’d written for newspapers and other periodicals." ... and it goes on interestingly.

From a Lit Hub email I got - "This Week in Literary History" - Coincidence???


In case you don't have enough to read. I'm shelving all the great reading - taking a break from working on my sixth draft! But checked email - my bad. I need more discipline!

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I’ve suffered lately from “too much shit to read,” and by shit I mean the good stuff. It seems impossible to choose and so I haven’t. And if I can’t choose from the pile, why try to add to it? But now I’m feeling like I can read one story/book at a time without obsessing about all the ones I’m not. I’ve taken many online writing courses, most good in their own way, but was always thinking about what the assignment would be at the end; about whether I would be able to perform. Never thought a class in deep reading would be so fruitful (ass-kicking?) for my own writing. I’m starting a George inspiration box. A literal box, because I’m old school. Putting in printouts of his links and lessons (maybe other things?) so I don’t lose them and can actually put them to work. I got this idea from Twyla Tharp, who for every new choreography project starts a box into which all kinds of inspiration go. My project is…TBD of course. But also: almost every lesson or link George posts (for example, “The Perfect Gerbil”) seems to apply to one of my stories (for example, a pattern piece). For someone overwhelmed by all the great, big things, it’s awesome to have one small place to start.

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Since we're sitting on the porch this Sunday shooting the shit...

Here's one that Harlan Ellison (peace be upon his cranky ass) always harped on and that was Perseverance. This was echoed too by a producer to me when I was hanging out on the set of "Dreamscape" working on a piece for Cinefantastique. It's one of those dumb cliches that's nonetheless true, and that is "Nobody is in this business who quit." Craft is building the boat (mine is "The Ship of Ishtar" courtesy of A. Merritt) but you need perserverance to finish it. Inspiration/intuition tells you where to point it, but perseverance keeps you going through dead waters and rough storms. Good words, bad words, great paragraphs, false starts; writers have to keep writing something if they're going to get to their destination. Like Edison's famous ten thousand failures, even a wrong can give you a clue as to what might be right. Remember that the Writing Gods only notice you if you're actually working, so you have to start a fire if you don't want to stay in the dark with the rest of the wannabes saying "One of these days..."

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Feb 6, 2022Liked by George Saunders

What sweet, self reflective words. Spoken like a friend...

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In this brief hiatus: I’m aware that the cross-section of the writing world here must cut across a vast, even oceanic, swath. “Genre” writers, whatever that may mean, “Literary fiction” writers, and between them, how they may choose, or choose not, to draw the lines; journalists, essayists, food-and-travel writers, historians, trans-Atlantic translators, writers from far-flung parts of the English-speaking world, and cookbook writers, I don’t doubt. I can see there are accomplished professionals here, of various stripes, novelists, flash fiction, short story writers and poets, retirees, hobbyists. The confident and the unsure, the timid and sometimes the reckless too.

I see, though, few scorners or mockers and not a lot of snark; I imagine they tend to be washed away or sequester themselves thanks to the relentless positivity and curiosity of the ongoing multithreaded dialogue(s) taking place here. This is, really, a great place to be, and the breadth of the umbrella would keep a convoy of elephants from singeing their tails. All to contemplate this story-thing and ways to read them, think about them, possibilities for writing them, if one should so choose.

I don’t know what “story” is or how to write one, that’s part of why I’m here, and I sort of don’t expect to know at any time in the future (some say, including me, that story is as inevitable as a face forcing itself upon you in a configuration of clouds). Story is, to my mind, a part of writing, sometimes a small part and sometimes the most evident, with “the rest” barely peeking out. I would like to know, in order to feel, in order to write, more about story, and the story-aspect of writing. There’s the what and the how, and (someone somewhere-I’m sorry we can’t search the comment section) mentioned apophasis, the definition of (God, but let’s say, any thing) by negation, by what [it | God | story] is not, but I’d like to pipe up for the cataphatic approach too, the definition, or invocation, of a thing by affirmation, inclusion, expansion.

In that light, I’m so pleased G.S. has made reference to Barthelme’s essay, that I have read and re-read for years, and which always challenges me to think beyond my current practice and state, even, of being. And this last re-reading did so again, as it sets down (sorry for this) on the wharf of my consideration such a freighter-load of questions and problems-to-work-out that I’ll be happily turning it over in my mind for weeks. Because my education parallels his background a little, bridging the visual art and literary worlds, his analogies are still accessible, if they now seem more “of their time”, if not dated. But his invention, playfulness, and collaging are as astonishing as ever.

And more to a possible point, which might also be a question, I think of this essay as story as much as a pared-down, spare narrative delivered by Tobias Wolff or Raymond Carver. It is not as plainly visceral, true, and may happen more in the cranium, but there is a kind of shape and patterning to it that is just as exciting. Well, maybe not to everyone, and maybe some may not think this essay has anything (trans-Atlantic “owt”) to do with story, and is unnecessarily confounding, but I guess we all get our kicks in different places.

Someone else mentioned the pleasure of a “clean” narrative. I’ll speak up for dirty narratives, cross-categorical hybrids, and downright messes. “Not-Knowing” has a particular bandwidth that causes me to consider how narrow each of our bandwidths tend to be, if we are not challenged to get out of our accustomed realms often, and cease to encounter what is difficult or puzzling or foreign.

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A formative moment for me was reading Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" in a poetry workshop class. Famously, she wrote seventeen drafts of this poem before she arrived at the final form, and the first draft is...quite rough, and all over the place.

When we read the poem in class, I was profoundly affected, maybe more affected by it than any other poem I'd read in my life up to that point. It seemed like such a perfect crystallization, perfectly putting words to my own experience, like it had emerged fully-formed from the ether. Then, when our professor showed us the first draft, it cut through all those bullshit myths I had in my head about genius. Taught me to let the poems work their own way out, to listen to what they had to say, rather than my "self", as if that would somehow redeem me.

Here's a link if anyone wants to compare the drafts: https://sharonbryanpoet.com/2018/10/23/drafts-of-elizabeth-bishops-one-art/

(And then there's Nabokov, who apparently had entire novels in his brain before he started writing...let's not talk about Nabokov...)

Btw George both of your stories you shared today really affected me...I admit I teared up... (thanks for being the "axe for my frozen sea" today)

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I noted down several insertions, among them:

He went to church and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, // and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars//, and looked down into the kitchens of houses. (p. 64)

He looked so //irresistibly// pleasant, in a word, that three or four good-humoured fellows said “Good morning Sir! a Merry Christmas to you!” (p. 53)

‘”Ah!” Returned the woman, //laughing and leaning forward on her crossed arms//. “Bed curtains”. (p. 53)

What they have in common, I think, is that they each add an element of specifically that serves to enhance, rather than draw focus from, the point of the scene, often in quite a subtle way (like a kind of narrative MSG). I really like the insertion on page 64, which strikes me as the least subtle of the three. I can really see Scrooge patting the children on the head in a way that I can’t see him watching the people hurrying or looking down into the kitchens of houses. It’s an action, after all. And it’s an action that communicates Scrooge’s reformed state of mind in a way that it isn’t quite communicated by the original sentence. The other two insertions work similarly, I think, helping us to picture the scene or highlighting an important detail.

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It seems we always come back to the old axiom: just write. And keep writing. Although, I’ve learned through golf that practice, when you engage bad habits or a lack of instruction, can be detrimental rather than additive. So we all need instruction along the way; we all need a good editor; and we certainly all need George. Thank you for another enlightening session.

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Feb 6, 2022·edited Feb 6, 2022

George, I noticed a trivial but telling typo in your message: “...and this lead me to the following simple "outline"...”

I'm an astronomer by trade, and as a consequence have to do a lot of scientific writing and editing.  I find that my colleagues are continually misspelling the past-tense form of the verb "to lead." My theory is that scientific types know that the metallic element that is homophonous with the past tense of that verb is spelled l-e-a-d (the one with the chemical symbol Pb, as you'll recall), so they slip into that spelling when they intend "led".  A corollary of this theory is that English-major types, who are blissfully ignorant of the periodic table, would never make this error.  If this theory is correct, then it identifies you as being of a scientific, rather than literary, nature (despite the long list of prize-winning literary works). And this gives hope to scientists everywhere who aspire to one day writing something people will actually read. So thanks for that typo and for generously sharing all these thoughts on writing.

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I was struck by being struck by the phrase, "Our art form." Both your generosity and my own insecurity to be included. Yet the more you talk about writing, the more I feel kinship. I may end up hanging these paintings on my own walls, but I enjoy painting them nonetheless.

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