Responding to your responses to the "CommComm" drafts...
Thanks to all who are commenting - we're just back from a little mini-vacation and there's a lot to sort out BUT I did want to say one more thing, which is that not every story starts out with early drafts as messy and exploratory as "CommComm" did. "Home," for example, had very little waste - I wrote a first draft that has a lot (a lot) in common with the final, in one night (and then revised for three months).
Every story is different. And I never want to confer on anybody a case of "Oh, shit, turns out I'm not doing it right" syndrome.
Many roads up to the mansion, etc etc.
Good night, Story Club, and thanks for being you. :)
Love this post and George's acknowledgment that, at base, all of this is magic. As Rick Rubin writes: "We are dealing in a magic realm. Nobody knows why or how it works."
[A few more Rick Rubin quotes:
"If you start from the position that there is no right or wrong, no good or bad, and creativity is just free play with no rules, it’s easier to submerge yourself joyfully in the process of making things."
"We’re not playing to win. We’re playing to play."
"Setting the bar low, especially to get started, frees you to play, explore, and test without attachment to results."]
George, I wrote you an apology last time, for calling your early draft "pretty awful." Deleted the apology because i figured you wouldn't see it. What I want to say today (besides I'm sorry for making such a dumb remark) is that your early drafts are not "pretty awful." They are full of seeds, full of magic waiting to happen. They show an artist at work, putting in the time and the effort, going through an arduous process, and having faith.
Seeing this in action, changes everything for me!
I talk a lot here about Story Club being Life Club, and again I have to hand it to George for teaching another great life lesson. Up until this very moment, if you had asked me to read someone's draft, and if I had thought it "pretty awful," that would be as far as I would have been able to see. I'd be stuck, right there. I might say, Yeah, keep going. But in my head, I'd probably be thinking some pretty bad thoughts about the writing. But now I see what how foolish that is. And how miraculous that "pretty awful" draft may in fact be, how full of magical seeds, if the writer is willing to press on. And how my role is to find the good, to have faith, and always to see the good person under there, doing their best.
When I read this from George--“Hey! Inferior/boring/predictable/common bit! What are you doing in my story? Get out of here before you make things blah!”--it made me think of Lauren Groff's introduction to a new book of stories she edited. She wrote this regarding what she was looking for in the stories she would choose to include: "...each of these stories had to pass a few rigorous tests, the first and most important of which was that they had to show some sort of thrill or risk in terms of language or structure or plot or enigma; something in the story had to deliver a sharp blue jolt of electricity to my nervous system."
Could i love this sentence more (from George's post here): "It will come as a surprise to you, what that final draft says, what it conveys. And it will seem astonishing, even to you, the person who wrote it, that a coherent story could come from those wayward, blurry, early drafts." Yes, this is so very true. Every story that I've ever written (and felt was successful) has absolutely surprised me by arising from the muck and revealing itself. It does feel like magic.
Here's to perseverance and allowing the early mess. And here's to less judgment, and more faith. Thank you, George!
Bear with me. I have a point. Today my husband went to fix something that I think is called a sub-woofer. (It's a big boxy thing that's supposed to make everything sound better.) He bought a piece of wire for $ 5.99 and after passionate declarations about the futility of our existence and the uselessness of his efforts (he's Sicilian), he discovered a switch on the front of the receiver that wasn't flipped up. He said he didn't begrudge the $5.99 for the wire because without his fiddling around with the thing, he wouldn't have discovered the issue with the switch--which pretty much describes the process of writing a story.
I just had a conversation yesterday with a friend about this very thing. In order to cut the fat off, you need to first create the fat. It's impossible to create the meat without making fat, too. Thanks for the reminder.
George, I think what you have done with this Commcomm sharing is one of the most delightful, insightful deconstructions of human thought and creativity I have ever seen. You could write a whole book forward from this. It’s so interesting to have spent months analyzing completed stories with you, prepping the brain for many of these insights. But seeing your well-honed process in action is priceless, the “ah ha” insights that settle into my own brain of how to walk the path toward creative greatness. Lessons of patience, non judgment of yourself, tapping into the subconscious, plain hard work, time and gestation, intolerance of crap (but in a kind way), belief and faith in your own voice - and that with enough of the above ingredients you can rise to greatness. I have learned so much. Thank you
Really enjoyed this post, particularly this comment: “We are trying, in other words, to go from empty page to masterpiece, in one stroke.” So true. Sometimes, our desire for the first draft to be perfect just drains our creative juices.
Ooooh. For many years I have participated in a generative writing group once a week. We write for an hour, together in person or by zoom, and then we share what we've just written, if we wish. The rest of the group says what they liked about the piece, what "resonated for them," in the current lingo. (It's the Amherst Method -- no prescriptive or negative comments.)
When I first joined this writing group years ago, I got sweaty when I read my work out loud. It didn't seem like I had anything interesting to say. After a few years I started to believe that the laughs I heard were genuine and the appreciation was real. The result is, now I know people like my work and I've been published here and there. But it occurs to me...
Maybe writing for an hour *knowing that other people are about to hear it* is holding me back from the kind of exploratory doofdom you describe. Maybe I'm reaching for the low-hanging fruit instead of casting a wider net for proto-riffs, or proto-plasm.
Something to consider.
The greatest piece of writing advice ever; don't become "stuck" in the first draft - allow yourself and your stories to grow, shift and bend the way a sprout must transform into a tree.
Writing makes me go mad!! I know I won't magic stroke the first draft into a masterpiece, but my ego and mind say differently. I get bored after the first attempt, yet I can't purge the idea that I must write! Suspending my ego about what I write, even for a little bit, is like suspending my dentist anxiety. Yet I can't stop thinking about writing! Maddening. I have faith that someday I'll believe in the process. Hope? I have something, that's for sure. Arg....
OK, I'm a slow one. Throughout Story Club I've struggled, experimented and generally worked at wrapping my head around this approach of near radical revision; this going over and over, on a micro level the sentences and inner workings of a story until it's clean and expressive as a human bone found in the desert. It could feel circular to me, a bit wankey though every once in awhile revelatory. However, between the Commcomm draft postings and listening on the Podre pod cast I finally caught on to something I'm sure everyone else has cottoned onto long ago. This whole approach is founded on waiting. You write something and then you wait . . . and listen. Not a passive waiting for some non-existent godot but for those quiet inner voices to start speaking - and encouraging them to do so, even sparking them to do so, by actively going over and over and making all these micro changes. It gives me sense, the more detached sense that I am no longer the writer; that I am waiting and watching and experimenting after that visceral burst that first birthed a story. Let the dofus have his day and then let the finer tuned and intelligent crowd take over. To make a really bad pun it's like doing all the messy living and then putting yourself in the Bardo to look back and muse.
“…a long steady run of quiet desperation, with occasional hope-blips.” That says it all. We don’t just need skill and vision, but just as important, loads of fortitude while persevering.
George, how do you negotiate with that protective ego when you find that it’s in the room with you and asking it politely to leave doesn’t work? My hunch is that it’s a working relationship--between the generative and the perfectionist parts--that improves over a long period of time as your overall draft count goes up. But say you’ve set aside an hour one evening to work, and whether because of the short time constraint or whatever other subconscious reasons, the Critic won’t go away. What do you do? I think I’ve found some healthier alternatives lately but I’m curious what your approach is.
That's an important post, and a good one. It IS all about how the mind works. The subconscious plays an enormous part in writing and editing. Think about the nuggets that turn up when you write without thinking for a stretch. Who the hell wrote that? Pretty poetic/prophetic/deeper than you might normally go. Is writing and editing much different than what happens in our own mind all day long? We obsess about something for hours in "our mind". But if we were to stop and strip away all the chaff, drop all the story that ultimately isn't real, there the good story is. Three words could define the universe in a universal way, an accessible way. Maybe two. Great post, George.
I've seen too many discussions these days devolve into a debate about ChatGPT, and I don't want to hijack Story Club. But since people have raised the question tonight of whether AI "creativity" can match human creativity, I thought I'd share this Saunders-centric experiment.
I wrote this next paragraph (just now) as the opening of a modern American short story with some themes or motifs that are similar to what George might use. This is my writing, the human Annie Bee:
My friend Ed told me that "all low-paying work is boring, or meaningless, or both if we're lucky." This is how I feel about my job at the Food Bank of Saratoga Springs. Did you know people will be so cheesy that they will donate an opened box of Sonic Zoomloops (now with *real* fruit particles), because they didn't like it, thinking that they are very excellent people for making this gift, and at the same time, other people of the same species will get huffy if you offer them an opened box of Sonic Zoomloops because they feel they are better than that. In other words, we all think we're better than something else.
Then I asked ChatGPT to Saundersize my original paragraph. Here is what it came up with.
My pal Ed once said that any job that pays a pittance is either mind-numbingly tedious, or devoid of purpose, or both if you're lucky. This, regrettably, is how I view my employment at the Food Bank of Saratoga Springs. Have you ever encountered individuals who will donate an open box of Sonic Zoomloops (now with bona fide fruit particles) simply because they dislike it? They do so believing that they are outstanding citizens for making such a contribution, while others of the same ilk will become incensed if you present them with an open box of Sonic Zoomloops, convinced that they are superior to that sort of thing. The truth is that we all believe we are superior to something."
Did the Chatbot make my text sound more like George? I don't think so. Did the Chatbot even improve my prose? Again, I don't think so. I think my words (messy and first drafty as they are) have a lively rhythm and a punchy everyman tone that the Chatbot can't match. The Chatbot makes sense, yes. But does it swing and sway ? I think not.
We don't have to worry quite yet AI will steal our magic.
“Fizzles out....” is, I think, Neil Young’s intro to his “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” off 4-Way Street. I will say of GS, "you don't want to play mumblety peg with him. He'll steal your leg."
I’ve been reading so much about A.I. it got me thinking that George could be an easy author to mimic. His style is so distinctive: strange syntax, beginning in media res, peculiar capitalization, funky stories. He even has laid out a detailed roadmap of his thinking process. Of course, the computer could never equal the magic!