That Feeling. You Know The One.

A few years ago, George Saunders came through town on a book tour. I can’t get to nearly enough author talks, but I made sure to catch this one. His CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) still crawls around inside me. Saunders answered a question that night, an almost certainly intended more to entertain than as deep wisdom. Even so, his answer sticks with me as much as his fiction.

The question he fielded was a usual one: What’s your writing process, or some version of that. His answer was disarming in its transparency. He didn’t mention when or where he writes or how he incorporates research. He talked about vibe. 
Saunders went through his angst when a piece should be working but isn’t. Or he thought the thing worked, but magazine editors disagreed and passed. Tactically, he described a mental positivity meter as he writes, the meter registering a good or bad feel with time he changes his sentences around. A neutral or downward shift means the off feel persists or worsens. More work required. A positivity lift and hit of endorphins means triangulating toward the right words with the right feel.
Writing not as rewriting, but as tinkering.
I don’t know if you’ve had any stories that refused to work. I have. Maybe you haven’t had issues getting story passages to click. I have. I take inspiration from Saunders and his tinkerer’s method. For one, as a license to struggle. The struggle is real and important. For another, finding the right words matter. The right words add depth to the moment, to the character, to the story’s march forward. Grammar check can’t tell you that. Strunk and White can’t. Your gut can.

I’ve had early drafts where cutting a character brought the story alive. The remaining cast had the space they’d always needed. I’ve also had drafts where cutting a character made things fall apart. The same goes for scenes and interactions that seemed cuttable–until I cut them. The head might press to cut them anyway, but the head can think too much. Those words landed there for a reason. If the positivity meter keeps vouching for them, that reason is compelling. 

Saunders was sincere but breezy about all this, a breeziness he’d earned and that suited a public talk. Therein might lie the danger. A newer writer or one seeking new magic might listen only halfway. Saunders didn’t make out his process as easy. Anything but. He described a constant probing and weighing, one that surely did produce angst.
Vibe isn’t plot or structure. Positivity can latch onto darling turns of phrase. You know the ones, the snappy lines we move around trying to make it fit. The lack of true positivity should have us clicking delete. I’ve learned not to get attached. And am continually re-learning that.
No story is worth eternal tinkering. At some point, a piece is either going to work or it’s not. It was inspiring, though, to hear Saunders talk about pieces he knew should work, pieces worth revisiting one frown or smile-inducing edit at a time. Here’s a guy writing at levels above the rest of us, and the struggle remains the same. 
So, then, might the solutions. The head is good. We like our writing brains. We need them, but we also need our writing guts. 

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