This conversation between author George Saunders and his long-time editor, Andy Ward, is a nice follow-up to that wonderful profile of Saunders from last week. My favorite part is this exchange on editing/re-writing:
Ward: A lot of people say to me, “God, it must be so fun to work with George Saunders. Do you even have to edit him at all?” And they say it like they assume you shun all editing, or don’t allow editing, which is always really funny to me, because you are a person who craves feedback, who wants to be pushed and challenged and sent off in new directions. This all sounds self-serving, I realize, so I should add: Of course, at this stage, you don’t need an editor. But you want an editor. Why?
Saunders: No, I definitely need and enjoy having an editor, and for the exact reasons you state. There’s a really nice moment in the life of a piece of writing where the writer starts to get a feeling of it outgrowing him—or he starts to see it having a life of its own that doesn’t have anything to do with his ego or his desire to “be a good writer.” It’s almost like an animal starts to appear in the stone and then it starts to move, and you, the writer, are rooting for it so hard—but may not be able to see everything clearly after working on that stone for so long.
If a writer understands his work as something that originates with him but then, with any luck, gets away from him, then what he needs is someone who can grasp the potential of the piece and lead him to that higher ground. (I’m aware I’m mixing metaphors here. OK: One ascends to the higher ground, and on that higher ground is a sculpture of a bear, a bear that is “coming alive” and “outgrowing” him. And the editor is encouraging him to “grasp the potential of” the bear. Aiyee.)
One of the things that you are really great at is simultaneously acknowledging the parts that are working and showing me to the places where the piece could be working better—it’s a genuine kind of encouragement that is literally “en-couraging”—it makes me feel, “OK, I can do this, Andy likes Part A and Part B, so I can go back to Part C and find a bit more in it.” There’s also a way that you have of being precise but also allusive, that works well for me—it’s something about the open-hearted way you frame your queries. Instead of feeling daunted or discouraged, I feel excited to give whatever it is a try. This takes a lot of editorial wisdom and confidence—to know just how to get the writer to take that extra chance.
All great writing is re-writing. It’s one of the few truisms of this world.