In which, at great length, I give away all my secrets.
Well, are we ever having a wild party over across the paywall.
Last Sunday I asked everyone to introduce or re-introduce themselves, sort of like I’ll do at the beginning of a semester – asking people who they are and why they’re here and what they hope to accomplish – and what a response we got.
At present, we’re sitting at over 1,300 (!) replies. (1312 to be exact, at this moment - not that I’m counting or anything).
And, man, are they wonderfully generous and thoughtful.
I can’t even tell you how heartening this has been. It’s made me realize that we have something really precious going on here and makes me even more committed to make it worthwhile for everybody, and try to keep going deeper and deeper.
Thanks to all who responded. It’s a dazzlingly varied group; people of all ages and backgrounds, from literally all over the world.
Several people said, in the Comments, that it had made them emotional, reading these accounts, and I agree – just seeing how essential art is, in the daily lives of so many of us, in the midst of all the challenges and triumphs of life, and to get a sense of the tremendous and intense generosity out there – the humor, the gentleness, the honesty, the evident concern for others, the acknowledgement that life is short but art is long – all of it moved me very much.
This thing has become really sacred and important to me, and I will try not to screw it up, dear friends.
I’m really so grateful I don’t know what to say.
So, I’ll answer a question.
This one came a few weeks ago, in the Comments, and I gave a brief answer then, but want to expand on it today.
Dear George, what a delight to listen to you reading your story "Thursday"! Thank you for sharing it with us. I must ask about the time line. For some reason, it is striking me as thrilling that you, in conjunction with doing all your Story Club posts, close reads, Q&A, etc, have also been finding the time to scribble away on this story, and go through your whole complex wonderful process with the Y/N meter on this incredible story. In light of the deep dive you invited us into on "CommComm" can you reveal how long "Thursday" took, from inception to today, June 12 issue of the magazine? Asked another way: did you seriously write this thing in the 18 months we've been with you in Story Club? I can't explain why this excites me. Maybe because I've been working with your method of revision since last September on a story that is getting closer and closer. So, listening to "Thursday" is like a form of hearing: Yes. It can be done. You can reach the end.
In the interest of true Story Club transparency, yes, I can answer this. :)
As I’ve said somewhere, in a post or a response to a comment, this soon after a story gets published I don’t usually like to over-talk it or get too deep into analyzing it. I want anyone who hasn’t read it to get a clean shot at it, i.e., one uncontaminated with my “ideas” about it – which aren’t actually all that relevant or, weirdly, all that fully formed yet. The thing exists and, at this point, even I still don’t know just what it is. So, I want it to (still) be able to breathe a little, and exert its own will, in your head and in mine.
But having said that, I think I’ll sketch out a few things, while they’re still fresh in my mind, in hopes that this might be of use.
As I mentioned in the interview that accompanied the story, the first part was a bit I had cut from a much-earlier (years-earlier) story.
On January 6 of this year, I took that bit and dropped it into a new file I called “Memory 1.”
Then I started working on it, kept working through Jan, Feb, and Mar, and sent it to The New Yorker on April 6.
They accepted it on May 3 and we scheduled it on May 11.
We started the editing process on around May 17 and worked hard on it until we closed it on May 26.
Then there was a quiet week and it came out on June 5.
So, that’s the basic timeline. The story took me about three months to finish, which is, for me, a lot quicker than usual.
For most of the eighteen months since Story Club started, I’d been finishing up the stories in Liberation Day and then going on tour for the book. I was also working on a couple of screenplays, and teaching at Syracuse, of course. During that time, I understood myself to be taking a little break, mostly, from writing fiction.
Then, after New Year's, I started back up again.
Now I’ll try to describe the rough phases of the story’s development.
First, I imported the old bit, in which an unnamed guy is somehow being compelled to go back and relive certain childhood memories at a degree of intensity that is just like being there again. He was on a drug, in that original outtake.
While I was expanding and refining that bit, a riff developed: the narrator is being sent, in successive memories, further and further back into his childhood. At one point, he becomes a baby in a crib. This was pretty funny, and I got attached to it, but also, it reminded me of something, namely a scene in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Hmm. Was this O.K.? I told myself it would be O.K, if, in the end, that bit was needed for the story.
So, I conditionally kept that scene in, wincing a little every time I got to it.
That “reverts to baby” section had this bit in it, which I still kind of like (this is a recreated memory the narrator is having):
All became just light and sound. I kick, kick, kicked. When would someone come? Up above was the ceiling and, in it, a light fixture: a gnarled floral clot. I rolled over. My mouth found the crib-bar.
That was nice, that would do.
Suck, suck, suck.
“Mrs. Dwyer!” I tried to say but only – well, only babytalk came out. I tried again.
In rushed Mom.
Good Lord, she was young.
“What’s all the cwying about, boo-boo baby?” she said, and lifted me up. We set out. Wow, could she walk fast, fast throughout the entire known world. Here were the familiar markers: a ceiling crack in the shape of a frown, that dimly seemed to menace; a doorframe on which a grey streak marred the clean white; the whitebread/celery smell of the kitchen; a burst of light from the living room window, along the top of which ran a golden rod. Then spinning, too much spinning, and back we went, back the other way: foodsmell, grey-streaked doorframe, menacing ceiling-crack, dropped back into crib.
Wow, was I beat. I felt like nodding right off. Sealing the deal, here came a blanket.
“Dwyer!” I cried out.
“Cwying, cwying,” Mom said.
I clenched and shook my tiny fists by way of saying: Mrs. Dwyer, Horace, help me, I have reverted to a baby and am extremely worried about what might happen next.
With this riff in place, the story was saying that my character was regressing, getting younger and younger, and was a little panicked about it.
At this point in the story, I started asking myself that timeless writing question: “And so what?” Also: “Why am I bothering telling them this?”
In other words, if the riff was “he’s getting younger and younger,” that ought to lead to something, so that all of the text demonstrating that he is getting younger (and especially that crib scene) would eventually be felt to have been “worth it.”
It occurred to me that the next logical thing should be: spurred by whatever this technology is, he goes right past his birth and into his previous life.
That seemed exciting.
For a while. 😊
I wrote that bit. Or started to. And then found myself asking (again): “And so what?” “What is that leading me to, that is of import?”
The only thing I could come up with was that the story might eventually function as a sort of “proof” of reincarnation – like, the guy brings back some tidbit from his former life that would prove that he really had been that other person, i.e., reincarnation was real.
But, whenever I thought of writing this version out, my heart sagged. I felt like I’d read or seen this before. It made me feel depleted. The whole deal seemed rhetorically fishy – if I, in a story, prove that reincarnation is real, well, I haven’t proven anything - I’ve rigged the outcome (since the whole thing is my invention).
And that’s not what stories do - their magic is of a different variety.
I’m finding here that I can’t really explain why my heart “sagged,” but the operative thing is: it did, it really did. And I thought, “Jeez, that’s not a good place from which to write.”
So, the crib scene had to go.
And it did.
Meanwhile, I had a section where the narrator runs into Mrs. Dwyer at a clinic, where both were being treated for cancer. I can’t quite remember how that scene came into being but the idea was, he’s surprised to see her there, and vice versa, and their shared illness makes a bond between them.
I spent a lot of time tending to this scene, kind of trolling around, hoping this bond between them would eventually show me a way out of the story (that is, that it might come in handy later in the story).
At one point I thought the story wanted to be: “Gerard has very bad trip, in which he reverts to baby, and therefore is denied future treatment, which is sad for him, because these treatments are what he lives for.” And having a connection between him and Mrs. Dwyer, from their clinic interactions, might mean that, at some point (climactically!) she might save him - sneak him in for a treatment, or something like that.
I labored under that idea awhile. But it started to chafe. Why, at about halfway through the story, did I already have the ending figured out? This, I recognized, was a form of clinging to the side of the pool, of not letting the story lead the way.
So, finally (experimentally, hopefully) I cut that clinic scene.
I cut it with some sadness, because it had some stuff in there I kind of liked.
The waiting room served five practices, each of which offered some specific cancer-related extreme measure. Those of us who waited here were quiet, generally: humbled by the new understanding that death was meant even, perhaps especially, for us.
On the overhead TV was a show called Dump Your Chump, in which a long-suffering spouse got to surprise his or her dismal spouse by dumping him or her with the help of a cooperative, cheerfully malicious celebrity. The sound was way down, as if the office felt that, while seeing the show was fine, hearing it might offend our sickness-induced solemnity.
But they’d had left the subtitles on, so a few of us were following along.
They called me in. On the entry door was a hanging cloth clown meant to be cheering. Up the hall toward me came Dr. Slide, holding his zapper delicately, vertically, like it was an ice cream cone he didn’t want to drop. When I passed, he doubled back around to follow.
“Just the guy I was looking for,” he said.
The burnings today hurt more than usual.
Ouch, ouch. It seemed he was doing about eight. But he assured me it was only the scheduled three.
“See you next week,” he finally said. “For the second-to-last group of three. The penultimate three. The penultimate trio.”
Out by the fish tank sat Mrs. Dwyer.
On our respective faces appeared mirroring looks of surprise, as in: Fancy meeting you here.
She gestured at her belly, gave a sad shake of her head.
In an attempt at fraternity, I reached around and did my best to gesture at my back.
Now my feet were carrying me out. If I stopped and went over there, it might seem I was morbidly seeking the details of her illness.
Some things were best left private.
So, I waved, mouthing, “Thursday?”
“Thursday,” she mouthed back, and gave me a thumbs-up.
Well, I was sad to see that go.
But not that sad. I felt a kind of relief, actually. In my heart, that section had always been a 6, hoping to become a 7. There was something about it that wasn’t quite “me.” And so, per my epistemology, I should do my best to say to that scene, “Get thee behind me.”
(That scene did, however, contain a bit that eventually found its way back into the story – the part where Gerard talks about how old and unhappy and farty he is.)
So, at this point, I’d cleared away two chaff-like items – the reincarnation/regression idea and this clinic scene – and, shorn of these distractions, the story started talking to me more honestly.
Although, there was also a moment, familiar, I bet, to many of you, where I thought, “Jeez, why all the waffling and dumb ideas and confusion. Is this how writing a work of art should feel? Maybe this thing is unfinishable and should be tossed entirely, or at least set aside.”
At some point it occurred to me, more or less “in a flash,” that maybe those initial childhood memories weren’t Gerard’s after all. (I actually don’t remember the details of how or why this happened.)
Suddenly, things felt interesting. If not Gerard’s, whose memories were they? This set up the idea of contrast between the two men (whoever they would end up being).
The story started feeling fun and spontaneous instead of labored and logical.
I didn’t know what this new version of the story would be about, but I could feel that, in this form, it would at least be about something. I could see how to proceed. It would be fun, and doable, to answer the questions that were very naturally arising, such as, “Who is Gerard?” “Who is the other guy?” “Why are Mrs. Dwyer and Horace even doing this?”
Whatever the answers turned out to be, because the questions had arisen organically from the story, the answers would not be theoretical or droopily metaphorical, but natural and human.
As usual, when I write about my own process, this is all sounding much more rational and controlled and planned and logical than it actually was.
In a sense, all of this was happening at once. Ideas were hovering over the story that would find their way in weeks later. Things were in the story that I knew very well were going to come out. Old stories I’d written were hanging around the table, suggesting certain familiar moves.
The real day-to-day practice was: editing the story three or four times a sitting, reading from the beginning each time; trying to be open to where it was and wasn’t pleasing me; being willing to throw some paint around (move sections around, cut sections, transpose salient sentences from one scene to another, etc).
I liked the voice of the first two or three pages – those childhood memories. I wasn’t changing that.
Well, de facto, then that had to be Gerard’s voice. What was it telling me about him?
He sounded articulate and nostalgic, which told me, somehow: Make him old and educated.
I found that I liked him being old, because it drew out a certain feeling of victimization: Mrs. Dwyer and Horace, those jerks, were exploiting this old dude.
(By the way, he didn’t have cancer anymore and neither did Mrs. Dwyer. I had healed them, through the holy miracle of revision.)
So, Gerard was cautious, articulate, kindly, delicate, a little exasperated. And now there was this other guy, David, coming into the story, through Gerard.
Who should he be?
Well, in my simple (simplistic?) view of art: he should be…not-Gerard.
Hence: incautious, inarticulate, rough, not well-educated.
In those initial childhood memories (which now belonged to David, not Gerard), I’d learned some things about him. The ideas of drinking and pummeling and wildness had been introduced; those had to be maintained and developed. (Otherwise, why were they in there?).
At one point, since I had David in what I imagined as a city, I put Gerard in the country.
It occurred to me to make Gerard and his family religious (since David’s family wasn’t).
In all of this, there was a feeling of wanting to make simple, discernible shapes. (We might here recall that question a few sessions ago, about tropes.) Not to “show” something or put forth some idea or theme – but, rather, to make a bold pattern that the reader could 1) sense and then 2) enthusiastically leap aboard, impelled by basic curiosity.
So, all of this happened within three months, but most of it happened (I say, checking my files) within the first two. (The crib scene was cut on February 23 and the cancer clinic stuff was cut way before that.)
The big question, I guess, would be: how long is this stuff supposed to take? Do we ever just throw in the towel and walk away? How much faith is needed, for Lord’s sake?
My assessment re this usually has to do with how much “undeniably” good stuff is already in the story — the places where, every time I read them, I get that little proud frisson, like, “Dang, I have to admit, that’s not bad.”
At some point, there’s, like, a critical mass of Good Bits that I refuse to lose – which leads to a feeling of confidence, I guess; if a solid run of Good Bits exists (I assume) then, the story must, de facto, be finishable.
It must be; otherwise, why would the first half be so good?
Because “finishing” just means recognizing that “Good Bit” is exactly equal to “bit that has succeeded in meaning something non-trivial, which we know by our happy reaction to it each time we read it.”
And, if something has meaning – then that meaning should be able to be advanced, i.e., yes, that story CAN be finished.
That’s the idea, anyway.
There can sometimes be – I know, dear friends, I know, I know – a sort of Rubik’s Cube feeling to writing a story. We fix this – and that goes out of whack. We finally get Part 10 working, but it messes up our Beloved Part 16, and without Part 16, how is Melissa ever going to find out that Roger is actually a robot, which is necessary for Part 30, where Roger explodes and destroys the dam, which, in turn, causes Mrs. Blank to finally divorce the brutal Mr. Blank?
And so on.
For me, the indicators that I should carry on might include 1) as mentioned, the prominence of Good Bits, 2) a growing feeling that, yes, despite all the trouble I’m having, I am progressing toward something, and 3) a sense that the problems arising are getting increasingly harder and more “meaning-rich.” (The story is essentially “cornering me”; the problems it poses, by way of those Good Bits, have become worthy problems.)
Also, sometimes, there’s a feeling of a new, weird thing shoving its way in, something that I didn’t choose, that seems to have a will of its own.
Unless, of course, all of the above turn out to be, as they sometimes do, false, deceptive indicators.
Let me end by saying, yes, right: it’s hard, very hard, to know how long a story “should” take, and it’s hard to know when to quit.
I don’t know the answer to either of these questions, honestly.
Every case is new, and has to be new, or it’s not art.
As I seem to keep saying and saying here, there’s is no general answer; the only good answer is your answer: the approach, which you don’t necessarily need to articulate, that you have developed over many hours of practice.
So…let’s talk a bit here about your experience? Do you notice any patterns in your own writing? Any “tells” that help you know if your story is marching toward glory or wandering around in a backyard of its own making, digging a deeper and deeper pit for itself while the whole rest of your life goes unattended?
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