All The Iron Filings Line Up Nice and Neat

1.

Magnetism seems magical not least because it is invisible. It acts semi-secretly in plain sight, whether it’s holding one photo suspended on a refrigerator door or protecting all of Earth from the ravages of the harsh solar wind. We don’t see it act — we only observe the effects, as in this illustration of iron filings being rearranged by a bar magnet.

2.

I am going to ask you to keep that image in mind while you read this passage from a recent George Saunders essay on the process of writing:

When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame. 

But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.

Did you see the iron filings move?

Saunders starts off with two characters, Bob and the barista, connected by an action. Saunders then adjusts the story until his alignment with Bob becomes clearer and clearer — Bob gets a past, a backstory, an emotional landscape. Bob becomes me, on a different day. The barista gets a single adjective: young. Saunders says this is “more compassionate.”

But I notice the barista’s still the one getting yelled at. She never even gets a name.

I found this jarring because in the initial setup, I allied myself far more strongly with the barista than with Bob. Granted, we started with Bob is an asshole so the initial flinch is tied to that whole I’m not an asshole self-defensive impulse that’s so hard to shake. But even though I’m now a middle-aged lady who writes full-time and prefers tea to coffee, I’ve worked enough years in retail to automatically class myself as barista-adjacent. So I was waiting for her part in this drama to be more completely revealed. And it never happened. She stays a passive grammatical object, a thing that exists for Bob to do something to.

Quick poll: how many of us assumed the barista was white? I caught myself doing just that. Same with Bob, now I think about it.

Did you see the iron filings move? I did, but not soon enough.

Later, Saunders gives us another example of his composing process. He starts with a sentence, Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch. This makes him “wince.” Slowly he pares away at it, word by word, making it more and more “Hemingwayesque” until he’s left with merely Jane, which, he says, “at least doesn’t suck, and has the virtue of brevity.” Even in text, I guess, women should take up as little space as possible.

I want to tell you that Saunders isn’t doing this deliberately, even though he’s in the middle of an essay about self-editing and artistic deliberation. But on purpose or not, it fits a larger pattern.

3.

Saunders’ essay is about how writers make millions upon millions of tiny, instinctual decisions that add up to internally consistent structures. Recognizing the partly hidden pattern is what makes the book satisfying to the reader. I resonate with a lot of what he says, because a lot of it is very close to my own process. A lot of it is also connected to a certain mystical strain in writing about writing: my characters tell me what they’re doing, I just write it all down. Writers say this all the time, in every genre. Thousands of craft books talk about building a character as though you’re exploring a map of a place that already exists. A writer’s instincts are held as authoritative, unerring, no matter what stage of her career she’s at. It’s like love, or pornography: you know it when you see it. (For those of us who write romance, it’s often a lot like love AND pornography.) It’s impossible to overstate how revelatory this feels in practice — I have felt it myself, more than once. I chase it. It’s one of the best parts of being a writer, that breathless of course! moment. A wild story appears, and the pattern makes itself clear, as if without my input.

Of course it’s bullshit — but it’s very useful bullshit, when you’re trying to finish a draft.

But: Saunders’ essay is also about how a writer connects with a reader. And this is where seeing the cause behind the effect becomes so much more important.

Because we are surrounded by patterns that seem natural, but aren’t. This is every comment section about the wage gap where someone chimes in to say Well women just happen to choose lower-paying professions. It’s every conversation about mothers who just happen to be the ones who stay home to raise the kids. It’s black people just happen to live in the inner city and all rural voters are white — even though we can point to the longstanding existence and wealth of data about redlining and sundown towns to show that these living patterns are the result of decades of fear, financial oppression, and outright violence. When queerness is framed as a perversion and classed with behaviors like kink or sex work, the mere existence of queer characters becomes enough to get a YA story flagged for ‘sexual content’ even if all your lesbian character does is live next door in the company of thirteen cats. Invisible networks of oppression and privilege nudge us into place, inch by inch, and then culture tells us this is all perfectly natural.

All those iron filings line up naturally in coruscating rays. Remember: naturally does not mean precisely the same thing as freely. Force is at work even if you can’t see it. We’ve all got a little iron in our soul.

4.

Saunders is deeply interested in what it means to be a human in the world: “This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her.” This is a lovely thought. But it’s important to remember the iron filings and ask: what do you see when you imagine this reader? Not just her personality and taste — what do you see? 

It shouldn’t matter, people will say, except that like fiction real life lives and dies in the specifics. And identity is very, very specific. Saunders flatters the reader of his essay by imagining that Tolstoy “thought well of you,” that he would be thrilled you responded to the ideas in his work — but it’s clear this is Saunders projecting his own warmth and generosity onto other artists. Tolstoy was not writing for me. Even the briefest glance at the diaries of Tolstoy’s wife Sofia suggests that Tolstoy took a very dim view of women intellectually, sexually, and morally. Imagine him deigning to converse with a bisexual, American, agnostic, staunchly feminist author of smutty romance and Greek-myth-inflected fantasy. This is not to say I cannot enjoy Tolstoy’s work — I have — but it does mean that I have to enjoy Tolstoy’s work a little bit in spite of Tolstoy. He weaves a pattern that has symmetry, consistency, beauty — and which leaves me out entirely. It is difficult, at times impossible, to take pleasure in being deliberately left out.

Closer to home, award-winning librarian Robin Tuphlos recently tweeted about a webinar wherein a publishing professional wouldn’t believe there was an audience for a book if she didn’t think it would appeal to her own circle of family and friends. This is a jaw-droppingly limited perspective that does real-world damage to aspiring authors’ careers. This is what happens when publishing imagines a reader who shares the imaginer’s unexamined bigotry. It’s like putting two mirrors opposite one another and then standing between them: the whole world becomes artificially homogenous.

5.

And books can certainly be mirrors. For instance, this pivotal Rudine Sims Bishop essay about the difference between mirror books and window books. Authors from the margins are always working hard to create much-needed mirrors so more people can look into the stories we tell and recognize themselves. Recognition — both being seen and being known — is a profoundly universal human need. Need, I’ll say again — not a luxury, not a trifle, but a need.

Unfortunately, marginalized groups have had to learn to recognize the lies that are told about them: black-on-black crimethe gay agenda, model minority, so inspirational. Remember that mirrors can distort as well as reflect. Whiteness, straightness, any systemic privilege puts you one step closer to the mirror: your reflection takes up more space and leaves less room for anyone else to be seen.

There are privileged authors — far too many — who have come to view this situation as a trap for them more than for marginalized voices: you can do a search for “scared to write diversity” if you would like more of that perspective. A great many of these authors are trying to do what they see as the right thing by getting more diverse faces in the mirror. But they are trying to do it without taking a step back, because that little iron filing tells them they’re in the right place, that they’re just naturally closer to the mirror. (Have I stretched this metaphor to the breaking point yet?) They have recognized the problem, but not the whole problem, and not their specific relationship to the problem.

Justina Ireland critiques one recent example. White YA author Jodi Meadows’ next book is given a cover with a black girl in a pretty dress, while POC authors’ covers get routinely whitewashed. Meadows tweeted that she did not want to tell the model she was being removed from the cover because she was black — but it’s wrong to frame the model’s skin color as the crux of the dilemma. The problem originated when a white author staked a claim to her black character’s visibility above and beyond that afforded to characters created by black and brown authors. Because Meadows doesn’t reflect on her own position as a white writer she ends up only replicating the problem.

Privilege is all the more insidious for being least seen by those it benefits most.

6.

One becomes a better human the same way one becomes a better writer: by learning to see those invisible forces and call them by name. We cannot resist what we do not acknowledge, cannot change what we do not first identify as a problem.

We are living through a moment where the power of collective action is increasingly palpable. This is an opportunity for all of us to make more deliberate choices that have a meaningful impact on each other’s lives and the future of the world. This is not hyperbole: in a political climate fraught with fear, lies, pettiness, and violence, it is more necessary than ever to stand up for truth, for justice, for caring, for the full humanity of all people. Right now even the smallest actions matter more. We are living in terrible times, yes, but also times of great moral opportunity.

Uplift the voices that are missing. Retweet #ownvoices book links, spread the news about new and upcoming releases, find the authors the gatekeepers overlooked. Submit your work to agents and editors of color, and let other writers know about them, too. Encourage the people the gatekeepers discourage. Support outlets (publishers and media) that focus on neglected voices. This is not a problem only one person can solve — publishing is not itself a Chosen One narrative. (Oh, to be able to say as much to Jonathan Franzen’s face!) You cannot fix everything by yourself — but you do not have to! There are so many others who are doing the work, for themselves and for others. Find them. Support them. Buy books, make recommendations, write reviews. You’re already doing this anyway, right? You hardly have to change a thing.

Take a deliberate step back from the mirror. Make the choices that you know are right, even if they feel awkward at first. It’s not going to feel quite natural. It’s still the right thing to do.

Work at getting those iron filings out of your soul. Disrupt the patterns that don’t bring benefit to everyone. We’ll all breathe a lot easier once they’re gone.

 

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