The Mysteries of Revision

When a former MFA professor asked me to come to her class and speak on revision, I immediately said yes. Not only was she a writer and an academic that I respected, there had been an ongoing, semi-inside, joke between me and some of my MFA cohort members about my desire to be acknowledged by this particular mentor.

And then—naturally, no big deal, so whatever—we’d become friends. I sent those same guys an e-mail with the subject Friendship Update and we all laughed.

The invitation came in January, a solid five months before I’d stand in a room of other writers and talk about revising book-length manuscripts. The length of advance notice seemed like an extravagance. Or at least, enough time that I wouldn’t need to immediately begin preparations.

And in the back of my head, a quiet voice reminded me that I was basically a pro on this topic. I’d revised enough book pages to choke a cow. Or at the very least, enough to feel comfortable putting the presentation on the backburner until, say, a month before I was to make the drive two hours north.

At the time, I didn’t know I would be stuck in the mud of my own revision, struggling with a book that is not only the best thing I’ve ever written, but also carries an immense amount of personal meaning. The other novels I’ve published are by no means lesser. But this one’s been rattling around inside me for fifteen years. It’s ambitious from a craft perspective, but also from a place of my own investment with the story.

For the first time, I felt like I was risking something and it was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.

[Read more…]

Always Becoming

silhouetted image of a woman standing in front of a window, mostly in dark. outside it is bright, light, and airy, inside you can only see the silhouettes of things. the windows open outwards, the image feels hopeful. The following is adapted from an address given at the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing commencement ceremony last month.

For centuries, wise men and women of various traditions have troubled the terms being and becoming, without arriving at anything like conclusion. We affirm the beauty and joy of being—being writers, being Christians, being laborers in and lovers of a complex realm that is concurrently material and spiritual. Still, in the very midst of our being, we are obliged to affirm the efficacy of becoming, the call to be ever becoming.

During our residency we shared the deep pleasure of poring over Holy the Firm, a delicious if challenging text by the beloved Annie Dillard. Among the many provocative passages in that book, Dillard attends to the gap between what is known and what is.

“Here is the fringey edge,” she writes, “where elements meet and realms mingle, where time and eternity spatter each other with foam. The salt sea and the islands—molding and molding, row upon rolling row—don’t quit, nor do winds end nor skies cease from spreading in curves.” [Read more…]

Dancing with Words During National Poetry Month

Impressionistic painting of an expansive room with vaulted windows that open to the green of the outside. In the room, various dancers gathered by a bar or in the center of the room, practicing pointing their toes and stretching out their legs. They are wearing loose white and pale lavender tutus and leotards. In the left hand corner, an instructor in black sits and observes.Here’s your assignment. Choose a poem you’ve written (it could be any piece of writing, really, an email message, a shopping list, a complaint to a cable service provider, a toast for a wedding—you get the idea. If it’s a poem, chose only a few lines. If it’s another piece of writing, choose a portion of it. Then, translate those lines.

But here’s the thing. Don’t translate a word from one language into its equivalent word in another language. Instead, translate each letter of each word, in the order in which they appear, into an image, a concrete noun or active verb (“be” is an active verb, too!). What does the shape of each letter resemble? That “h”, is it a shovel? That “s”, is it snow or a leaf falling to the ground?

First do a raw translation, letter to word (or words), letter to word, letter to word. Now, using these words, arranging and adding words as needed to write complete sentences, write a poem. Or, if poetry isn’t for you, write a new shopping list! Or a letter to your senator! In this visual language, tell your senator to protect funding for the NEA! Or write a confession to God. [Read more…]

My Bad Italy Novel

Caravaggio's painting of Saint Matthew's inspiration. Matthew stands partially kneeling on a tall stool, looking upwards to an angel who is giving him words. As Michelangelo looks up towards the young angel, he also writes.February is offseason in Rome, so today the city is a little gray, a little quiet, if ever it could be such a thing. I’m standing on the steps of San Luigi Dei Francesi church, buzzing a little from a sugary espresso.

I’m gearing up to enter the church and see, for the fourth time in my life, one of the most gorgeous triptychs ever painted: Caravaggio’s Life of St. Matthew, comprised of The Calling, The Inspiration, and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew.

I’ve thought about these paintings so many times since I first saw them as a doe-eyed twenty-one-year-old that I can conjure their presence as fast as I can start my car:

Matthew at a table strewn with coins in a dark tavern, a slice of light preceding a burly Peter and a chiseled Jesus, who lifts a languid finger towards him; gray and bearded Matthew hunched over a scroll with a quill, an angel hovering above his head; Matthew splayed over a pit, one hand up, waiting to be stabbed a second time.

The only problem, aside from a stabbing pain in my right foot, is that there are two Italian soldiers guarding the church doors. They have berets perched on their angular heads, looking both jovial and severe; one of them is smoking a cigarette, the other is making funny faces at a toddler. They wear bulletproofs vests over their thick chests and over those they hold matching M-16s.

I am wearing a silly brown hat with a wide, flat brim, which serves the triune purpose of keeping the Roman sun off out of my eyes, covering my bald spot, and declaring, if it wasn’t obvious enough already, that I am an American. [Read more…]

An Interview with George Saunders, Part 2

old black and white film photo of an old brick building to the right of the frame. small people in white stand in front of it. a large tree hangs over the top left half of the frame. Beloved fiction writer George Saunders just published his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, an unconventional work of historical fiction about the moment when Abraham Lincoln was embroiled in the Civil War and lost his son Willie to typhoid fever.

I recently spoke to George Saunders on the phone from his home in California about his novel of voices, the Tibetan concept of the Bardo, and how he drew on classic ghost story tropes to create his distinctive spirit characters.

Part 1 of our conversation ran yesterday.

Jenny Shank: In your book the Reverend Everly Thomas learns he’s going to be damned, and he can’t figure out what he did wrong. I’m still puzzling over this. What does it signify? The unfairness of life? Or the fact that we can’t truly know what the consequences of our actions are?

George Saunders: I don’t know what he did, and the idea is he doesn’t either.

In this bardo state, you’re constantly repeating your story and you’re desperately trying to stay there. You become less than you were in life.

You know how sometimes certain old people are hooked on two or three stories in their life and they repetitively tell them? And in the process they forget the other stuff that they did. These ghosts are kind of like that.

I think the Reverend has told these stories so much and he’s been in this place so long that he actually can’t remember whole swaths of his life, including what he did wrong. Built into that is also the notion that maybe we don’t know what the basis for judgment is. In some ways it would be kind of weird if we did.

The story sometimes writes you into a corner. I knew that I didn’t want to say, “Oh, he stole.” Then it would be like you’re playing God in a funny way. So I wanted it to be me not knowing, you not knowing, and him not knowing. So that would imply that there could be a very unpredictable God and also that the Reverend is not in a state to remember stuff.

Right before the Reverend decides to run off with Willie’s body, there is a moment where he thinks, “Whatever I did in life, I did it, and I’m damned for it, but I have to believe that God is still watching me and will credit even the slightest good intention.”

That’s my assumption about most things. If I go to the coffee shop and have a nice interaction with the barista, I don’t know what that does for world peace, but we have to assume that in the great basket of goodness maybe that’s one little micron or one little neutron that you’ve put in there.

That’s the only way that I can figure out how to live, is to say, “Well, I don’t know what this adds up to, but I can do the best I can.”

J.S.: The ghosts are fun. How did you come up with the characters and how did you decide to give them strange ailments?

G.S.: For me, when I’m coming up to a place where I have to make somebody up, it’s almost like driving and taking your hands off the wheel.

I’ve been in this book for a while, and I know what this moment is, so let me just yield control to the subconscious. That means for me to just start typing, almost like trying to do improv, let the person start yapping, knowing that you’ll revise it later. In that way, they’ll cough up something that you need.

Rather than say, I need this kind of character, so let me research them, it’s more like running into the room and letting the character talk.

Vollman and Bevins were walking, and you feel that they should be looking at stuff. That image of a big pile of animals came to my mind. Then you go, there’s a guy sitting by a big pile of animals, why would he be there?

It’s more intuitive than I would have believed, just dwelling in the moment and seeing what your subconscious comes up with.

The deformities thing, that’s a ghost trope also. There are lots of places where ghosts have weird things. Earlier versions of the novel were not very funny, and I knew it would get sad, and we would need some comic levity. That was a way of making it funny, to have the Reverend with his hair sticking up and Vollman with his huge member.

It’s almost like riding a bike. If the bike is lurching too far over to the sadness, you have to put something in to change it. So once you decide to do that, you’ve got to stick with it, so you’ve got to make sure either everybody has some kind of manifestation, or if they don’t then there’s a reason for that.

J.S. It was a sign that the rules are different, and that we’re not quite sure what the rules are.

G.S.: Part of the fun was to say, whatever happens when we die, it would be really weird if it was what we had expected. Even if you were a lifelong Christian believer, it would be kind of weird if there actually were pearly gates.

There might be pearly gates, but based even on our experience on Earth, when you say, “Oh, I’m going to Tampa,” and you go there and it’s not what you thought, ever.

Part of the book was to build that in a comic way—we all think we know what happens after death. But maybe it’s going to be not only weird but also dorky and comic and inconsistent. Any time that world started to make too much literal sense, I tried to throw a little curve ball so the reader would feel like “I don’t really know what the rules are.” That was part of the plan.

J.S.: I took a writing class with you where you said that often you can figure out the problems with a piece of writing that isn’t working by going down into the sentence level and figuring out which sentences are false, or bullying, or BS, and working through those, and that in turn will solve your larger problems with character or plot.

I’ve always been a fan of Abraham Lincoln’s writing. He always strikes me as someone who left no detectable BS in his writing on a sentence level—which is something I don’t think I can say for any other politician whose words I’ve studied!

Did Lincoln appeal to you as a writer?

G.S.: Yes, very much.

Once I realized I was going to have to somehow represent Lincoln, I read speeches that he had written. People who’ve written about his writing emphasize how logical he was. His writing was a syllogistic tool. He would say, if A, then B, and he would reason through it. His late writing especially is so tight and so beautifully reasoned.

I tried to think well, okay he wrote those things, he revised those things, so what would that way of thinking look like raw, in his head? In his speeches, he’s logical and he works with things in an efficient way. I felt like if Lincoln was to write a speech based on those monologues [in the novel] it would be much tighter. But he’s sitting there in a graveyard, and that’s how he’s thinking.

I read an article by John McPhee in the New Yorker about omission. He mentioned that when Time magazine was in the pre-digital days, the process involved that the writer, having edited heavily, at the eleventh hour would get some feedback from the editor, and this process was called “greening.” The editor would be like, “Just to fit it on the page, we have to cut X number of words.” They would make suggestions in green pen.

This was already a tightly edited piece that they would be happy to run just as it is, but for space reasons they had to shrink it. He said this is a great thing to try. Take any piece of writing that you’ve done or somebody else has done and say, arbitrarily, green ten, which means you’ve got to cut ten words. Somebody claimed you could green the Gettysburg Address by six, but if you did seven words you’d ruin it.

That’s kind of a test of a piece of prose, if you can green it.

J.S.: This novel is all written in dialogue. Why did you decide to do that, and what were the challenges of writing only in dialogue?

G.S.: I was trying to avoid that kind of third person voice, you know: “On a dark night Abraham Lincoln entered the graveyard.” That just made me cringe. I didn’t want to do that.

Many years ago I wrote another book set in a graveyard, that had this device almost like a chat line, the dead were kind of talking to and past each other. That was real jangly, I really liked the way that felt. It gave you a lot of freedom to represent contradictory viewpoints. And it just looked good on the page.

At some critical moment, I was talking to Deborah Treisman from the New Yorker about this material. I’d written a play that wasn’t that good. She said, “But why don’t you write it as a novel?” I respect her so much that her saying that turned on this permission light in my head. Within a few weeks, one of my students, Adam Levin, said in an email, “if you ever wrote a novel, I think it would be in a series of monologues.”

You could just do it by having people talk, and then you could avoid using the word “ghost,” which I didn’t want to do, because then you’d see a guy in a sheet. In a way it was a technique of avoiding the banal stuff I didn’t want to do. Sometimes you put it up on its feet and you go, that little move was really kind of fun. This lets me come in from this side angle and get more feeling out of it.

It plays into something I believe, which is, when I was there with you guys at Lighthouse in Denver, and there were a hundred people in the room, at some level you think, what’s really going on here is there are 100 different minds firing full speed, and this one is thinking about the fact that her socks don’t fit right and this one is listening and this one is listening and disagreeing.

If you really wanted a God’s eye view of that gathering it would be a hundred simultaneous inner monologues. Monologues, in some ways, are the most scientific descriptions of consciousness and even of gatherings.

You go to the marketplace and there are seventeen consciousnesses moving in and out. Sometimes you want the same shirt that I want, and our thought bubbles collide a bit and that makes plot.

It’s the most honest way to represent human beings.

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Jenny Shank’s stories, essays, satire and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, McSweeney’s, Prairie Schooner, and Image. Her first novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award. She’s on the faculty of the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver.