Regarding revision:

This was years ago. I needed a shove to get my novel written, and so I asked a friend if she wouldn't mind making a pact with me. I'd send her what I'd written each week and no matter what I sent her, she was to write me back "Great job, keep going." That was our pact. If I didn't send her pages in any given week, then... the pact was over. This makes no sense, i know. There were no real consequences, but somehow it worked and I wrote an entire novel this way, sending her my pages each week. Eventually, that novel found an agent and my book was sold to a publisher. When I wrote my friend to tell her my good news, her immediate response was "THAT piece of shit?" And I had to explain to her that she'd only read my horrible first draft and that I'd done three entire rewrites not to mention made countless small changes since those first ragged and terrible pages came her way. (I remember saying to her, "But you told me great job, keep going!" and her saying back to me "But you TOLD me to say that! Week after week, what you sent me was just terrible!") All of which is to say that all real writing is in the rewriting and that no one should stop writing a story because it is terrible.

Also, George, as others have written already, you are such a great gift to all of us here, a true mensch. Your tenderness is striking and I feel so very lucky to be a part of this group with you as our leader.

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I was listening to a podcast last evening where one of my favorite book guys (James Mustich: 1000 Books to Read Before You Die) was talking about reading. How to read something we start, but cannot get into. Worrying that we made a wrong choice. Or aren’t smart enough to understand it. His advice was to envision it like wading into the ocean; you cannot see the whole ocean, but that’s ok. Just keep wading in. And writing seems like that to me. Just keep wading in. Float awhile with it. Go sit on the shore and view it. The ocean is vast. So are words. And meaning. We can get so lost.

I once had a hospice patient who was a writer in Cambridge MA. His home was filled with so many books and manuscripts. Floor to ceiling. He was an academic and very wise. But humble. I hated that he was dying. He was magnificent. And he equated death to books all the time. Talking about his last chapter. But extolling about the first chapters and how blank they seemed at first, but they filled in as he went, editing here and there. He told me the stories they held were a masterpiece, and to view life that way. As a masterpiece with good and bad and messy but with a loving thread throughout. Always search out the love. The kindness. And he said, never fall into the trap of worry, but respect it always when it appears. And do not fall victim to its charm. The worry. It’s telling you something. But just listen, adjust and move on.

I will never forget him.

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Jan 6, 2022·edited Jan 6, 2022Liked by George Saunders

George, thank you for this. I’m a consummate worrier with stories, poems, and a novel that may never see the light of day. For years, I’ve languished as a writer, intimidated by the process and the publishing world, but infinitely more so by my own standards. Of the stories and poems I’ve published, I still don’t know what readers see in them. Journalling has become my hack; I journal when I have story ideas and then disregard these as meandering, pointless scribbles. I try giving myself permission to “float” in the ocean of my ideas (so aptly put by another commenter), but then deny myself the dive. My subconscious sees the darkening blue depths, the endless potential in certain ideas, but my conscious mind tells me I lack the gear to go deep, that perhaps I shouldn’t try. Maybe I don’t need the gear?

In this, my first comment in Story Club, I want to express my gratitude to you, Mr. Saunders, and to all the wonderful, supportive people here who have also invested in this free diving worry work.

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Last night, I came across this passage from Danielle Ofri's book "What Doctors Feel" in a chapter about medical decision-making errors: "Guilt is usually associated with a particular incident and can dissipate when the issue is resolved. But shame reflects a failure of one's entire being. While guilt often prods a person to make amends, shame induces a desire to hide."

Guilt says that I caused a problem, whereas shame says I am the problem! Shame is a reaction to, as George quotes Wallace, the experience of not living up one's image of oneself. When I write and worry, I often struggle with separating what is guilt vs shame. Guilt would be "man, I botched this sentence but I got really good feedback and have a better idea of how to fix it." Shame is worrying about how readers will judge me, and about the very fact that I am a writer (as opposed to, say, a doctor who spends all her free time saving lives.)

But isn't shame the reason why I write? I think about the confessional nature of so much modern writing (from Augustine and Montaigne to bloggers and many physician-writers), and start to believe that shame is not something to be overcome but negotiated. If shame comes from disappointment, and disappointment is a natural part of being alive, then maybe shame is just a permanent fixture in the process of writing. As George writes, so much of it comes down to trust.

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Jan 6, 2022Liked by George Saunders

George, I don't know how you do it. So often writing advice is like this really deceiving fruit that I stick in my mouth and then it has that artificial orange taste to it. I follow multiple platforms for creatives that churn out advice from noteworthy people and so often I am trying to find just one little nugget that works for me. It usually doesn't. And often, it even makes me feel worse! I get that "Easy for you to say" attitude that causes a lot of doubt and confusion. But Story Club is different. Every piece of fruit I pick up is ripe and each orange section is better than the last. I think it's the taste of permission. Everything I feel as a writer is becoming a conversation, because the suggestions we share don't apply to just one aspect of this experience. I think about my basket of oranges throughout the day - on my commute or when I am making coffee or answering an email. These things we are talking about are digging at something deeper, more communal. I feel like I am becoming a better thinker, which in turn (if I'm lucky) will make me a better writer. One step at a time though :) 

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I battle back and forth with worry quite a bit, so a lot of this was incredibly accurate for me.

I have one quote I turn to a lot, one that helps me jumpstart my writing if I'm frozen in fear/worry. It's from the writer Anna Keesey, I think she said it in an issue of Poets & Writers magazine about struggling with the page. It goes:

"Another factor, though, was that I was persisting in a fundamental artistic error. I thought, on some level, that I had to have the same feeling while writing a book that I had when reading a good book. That is, if I weren't transported, or enthralled, by what I was perpetrating, then nobody else could be. So I second-guessed every choice I made. I didn't understand that I had to be a workman, a laborer."

Then, just last night, I read a line in the second volume of Neil Simon's biography ("The Play Goes On") that seemed to be talking directly to me and addressing those moments when I felt lost or afraid, even if I didn't recognize my inability to start as fear. He said:

"But creation needs to be nurtured by those who hold the creation and the creator in esteem, because I'm an authority on how quickly confidence, with no one to bolster it, can disappear on a daily basis."

I write comics and any time art comes in for a comic I'm working on, my confidence skyrockets. Why? I didn't draw these images. But I can see the thing I'm imagining becoming real. I try to hold onto that as long as I can, all through the worries that arrive.

Thank ya' for the post, as always.

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I think I’d do well to re read this bit once a month with a cup of tea. Thanks from a frequent worried artist. xx

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This might seem weird but last night I finished watching the first episode of Peter Jackson’s Beatles doco. In it, Paul and George are wrangling over something as they ‘workshop’ writing a song. Paul says ‘you’re making it too complicated, make it simpler’(insert some technical words about guitar playing here). ‘Make it simpler at the beginning then we can make it more complicated later.’ George couldn’t get it. It made me think of my writing and how sometimes I try to make it too complicated — or ‘smart’ — at the beginning. This, and asking my thing what the problem is here, makes me realise it wants to be simpler.

John by the way just looked on.

I recommended the documentary for *anyone* interested in creative processes and how ‘mucking around on guitars’ and the playfulness and silliness of it (as they try to work towards their final album) can bring the gold. You see it emerging in real time and it is *entirely* thrilling.

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The whole time I was reading that I was worried it would end.

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This is great. My first staff writing job in television was with Norman Lear's company and my office was surrounded by incredibly talented writers from all his wonderful shows (All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times, etc.). Two of the Maude writers, Bob Weiskopf and Bob Schiller (veteran comedy writers, who also wrote on I Love Lucy), must have passed by my office and seen me staring worriedly at my typewriter (this was early 70s) because later I found a note stuck to my machine that read: Don't think... Write!

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Thank you, George Saunders, for your kind, thoughtful, amusing and important suggestions. My history is to blurt out or as you say, fail to revise, something off the top of my head, in reaction, usually, to a real or imagined threat to my privately held sense of what's right or wrong. The result is that even here, in this (so far) benign crowd of eager readers/writers, I've already elicited the response of at least one person who is thankful there are not more like me. That was not my wish--- as I face the words I wrote in the morning light, especially after your message to us today, I see that some revision could have created a less personally aggressive response.

And since this is a writers group, may I say that I wish I'd revised my comments because I was hoping to convey certain points about American culture and indoctrination, not pick a fight. Until "recently", American literature describes people with an ethnic or racial category only if they are not white. The given is that to be American is to be white. The unwritten and perhaps unaware result of this way of thinking is that if you are not white, you are not really American. I am third generation American, and though I look Asian, I am clumsy and out of my element when visiting Japan. I'm never more aware of being American than when I am in Japan. I wonder if the couple in the Hemingway story are behaving like that, too.

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Jan 6, 2022Liked by George Saunders

What a great disection of self doubt. Actually it applies to almost any worthwhile endeavor. I one had an extremely successful business owner confide to me that He's still plauged by the nagging worry of folks seeing through his facade. He self realized that deep down, all the wrong moves He'd made over many years indicate He's not really a shrewd businessman, just really good at playing that role. Your solution George, keep plugging away at it, reminds me of one of My Dad's favorite sayings. Dad used to say "Do something even if it's wrong" . Sounded stupid to my all-knowing 20 year old self. My 60+ year old self has finally figured out that Dad really meant not giving in to paralyzing inertia. Something like Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb. First He had to figure out a bunch of things that didn't work until he hit on one that did.

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Further to the topic of worry and self-doubt, I've always loved this tremendous reading by Benedict Cumberbatch of Sol DeWitt's letter to Eva Hesse. It's funny, moving, and apt.

"In 1965, Eva found herself facing a creative block during a period of self-doubt, and told Sol of her frustrating predicament. Sol replied with this letter."


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Jan 6, 2022·edited Jan 6, 2022

I think my worry stems from not having an MFA or any kind of 'qualification' in creative writing - most of my learning comes from close reading. So, the thing I often forget is that a published piece of work has had many careful readings and helpful suggestions by editors and others, to get it to the point of publication, and my solitary attempt is never going to measure up to that. So, the idea of just trusting my own instinct and that being 'good enough' is very liberating.

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This post made me cry a bit, it was so tonic. Somewhere in me there’s an influence that says “A wish to do the thing beautifully” is a bad thing, somehow. Egotistical, the wish to make a great thing.

Two worries meet:

1. I won’t do the thing beautifully. (All the fantastic Jedediah + Slim prairie-crossing advice feels so good for that one.)

2. I will somehow do the thing beautifully after all and that will cause something strange to happen, and maybe something bad.

When you talk about how the story knows things about itself and wants to communicate, it feels like a door opening onto a large, mysterious place, an intelligent place. A big, humming, lively unknown.

Maybe there’s an existential fear of interacting with this place, even if it’s benevolent? Does this make any sense?

Anyway. Thank you, thank you. What beats receiving wisdom like this from a great, kind teacher? Not much.

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One of the best bits of revision advice I ever heard was from an origami designer. The question he was addressing was “How do origami artists come up with their designs?” His answer: “Make a change; see the results.”

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