Aysegül Savas on Being Edited

The dangers and glories of revision

Meghan O’Rourke
A portrait of Aysegül Savas

In our column “On Being Edited,” The Yale Review will publish conversations with our writers about the editing and revising process. What follows here is a transcript of a conversation our editor, Meghan O’Rourke, had with Aysegül Savas this winter in front of an audience of writers at NYU in Paris. Savas’ story “An Introduction to the Work of S.L.” appears in the Spring issue of the Review. Savas, a Turkish writer living in Paris, is the author of the novel Walking on the City, and is now at work on a collection of essays on the imagination and inspiration. When The Yale Review received her story about an enigmatic artist and the researcher studying her work, we loved the premise, but something about the framing wasn’t working. Over the next month we worked on a draft with Savas, noting our questions about the opening and the ending. Below, you’ll find our discussion of finding the right frame, false endings, and good and bad editorial ideas alike.

Meghan O'Rourke, editor

Meghan O’Rourke One note we gave was to reframe the beginning as an essay about the artist S.L.’s work, rather than as a profile of the artist. How did you take that edit and change the beginning? And what was the difference between editing on your own and having editors work with you?

Aysegül Savas I’d had the sentence, “It took some time for me to write this profile of her work,” and you said, “This isn’t really a profile. Let’s call this an essay.” Even though I hadn’t told you what my vision for the story was, your suggestion was a way of saying, “Let’s tell the reader you’re being playful.”

Originally I was writing a profile of an actual photographer. I had a lot of fun writing it. A lot of the time when I write essays, I feel completely free. I have no trouble coming up (hopefully this continues after I say this) with ideas for essays. I don’t worry, “Well, is this allowed in an essay?”—because everything is allowed in an essay. So I finished writing this profile, and I thought, “I wish I could write fiction like this; it’s so liberating.” It’s not liberating to be profiling a real artist because you can’t let your imagination go. So I thought, “Okay, I’m going to write an essay, and I’m going to invent the artist. The work of art can be as fantastical as I want it to be.”

Very quickly I thought, “Well, the story is really about the imagination and about how free the imagination is as opposed to something that’s put down on paper, something that’s put down on canvas.” I was trying to say, “Here’s this invented artist. I’m going to tell you what her work is. I’m going to tell you that it’s amazing.” However, the art is about how the viewer imagines it and not how the artist intended it to be. I’d hoped to portray the idea that you have to imagine the artist’s work yourself. But it wasn’t very clear, and even though I hadn’t told Meghan the intention of the story, she kept underlining these elusive, playful parts and saying, “Can you explain?”

At the time I thought, “This is so frustrating because that’s the whole point. You’re supposed to imagine it.” I was trying to say that every novel or every short story is a work of imagination by the reader as well as by the author, but in order for that to come across in writing, the written word has to be assertive enough that your imagination is guided in some way.

So at first I was frustrated with the edits, but what became clearer as I sat with them was that this was an idea-driven piece, and those ideas became richer. I had to go deeper into “What does it mean to approach art not just with your mind but your whole body? What does it mean to be free in your own imagination?”

MO I totally had the sense that I was frustrating you. But I hoped to good ends, because what I love about this story is precisely what you’re talking about. It is very much an idea-driven piece that’s also grounded in playing with different conventions. It’s so interesting that what can be the stifling conventions of profiling an artist can become liberating conditions for the short story. It’s really interesting for writers to think about the ways you can borrow from other genres or forms to liberate and make space.

This was a very tricky piece to edit because it was so much about that playfulness and there was this quality of elusiveness that was really important. Yet there was something so elusive about it. We didn’t get your mind as much as we wanted to. I thought the edits you did were really brilliant at unpacking this notion of the reader bringing her imagination to the piece in the same way the profiler or narrator of the piece does.

AS I think that the most striking edits happened at the end of the story. I’d rewrite it and Meghan would say “No,” and I’d write a bit more and she’d say, “Well, you’re still not actually telling us anything.” I’d write a gesture and intend a whole world of meaning behind the gesture, and Meghan would say “No.” But it’s liberating to get over your own subtlety and say what you’re trying to say in a very direct way.

Here’s the ending:

At the end of our meeting, S.L said that she’d enjoyed our conversation. “Some of these,” she said, pointing at a detail of lines expanding rapidly, before disappearing behind a wave of color, “are things I haven’t dwelled on in a very long time.” As I was leaving the studio at its green hours, she said that she felt invigorated to get back to work. For our last session, she said, she would be happy to show me some of the early attempts of her current project.

In her recent essay “Artist Demystified,” S.L offers a prism of words and images that move the spectator beyond—The essay, seminal in its field, does not make clear.

I arrived just before sunrise for our final meeting. Unlike my previous visits, S.L did not greet me at the door, which nevertheless was left open. Inside, all was clear. The walls had begun their shift. Out the window, the dark tree tops in the distance floated like a storm, marking the place where the eye searched for clouds. I scanned the horizon and back inside, where I stood in the empty studio.

The idea with the ending was that S.L.’s final work was a disappearing act and that the reader or the viewer was left with herself or himself.

Here’s the ending after edits:

Before I left the studio, she said that she’d enjoyed our conversation. “Some of these,” she said, pointing at a detail of lines expanding rapidly then disappearing behind a wave of color, “are things I haven’t dwelled on in a very long time.” She added that she felt invigorated to get back to the work, and I quickly packed my things to leave.

For our last session, she told me, she would be happy to show me some of the early attempts at realizing her current project. Given the overwhelming interest in S.L.’s painting, surprisingly little attention has been paid to her singular essay, “Artist Demystified,” which one critic has called “an attempt to derail the audience.” In the essay’s final section, S.L. tells an anecdote from her earliest childhood with the stated hope that it may provide a point of entry into her work. What follows is a kaleidoscope of words and images that bear no discernible significance for the reader. Surely this is not a derailment—S.L. is rarely coy—but rather the firm statement that there is no direct entry into her earliest seed of consciousness.

In contrast to my previous visits, S.L. did not greet me at the door for our final meeting, but it was open so I walked the long hallway to the studio. Inside, all had been cleared away. Tabletops were bare. The drawers shut smoothly. Everything teemed with anticipation. Beyond the surfaces were the colors and shapes lying in wait. Out the window, the dark treetops in the distance floated like the storm marking the place where the eye searched for clouds. My ears strained to make out the distant hum. I scanned the horizon, then turned my gaze back inside to the empty studio where I stood alone. Just as there was no direct entry into the artist’s consciousness, there was no simple way to leave it either. The walls had begun their daily transformation.

Obviously the most striking change is that in the original version, it’s about the empty space of the imagination that you can’t fill with words. It is about reserving that space in art. But on the early drafts, Meghan was asking, “What do you mean? What is this essay saying?” So I had to think about what S.L.’s essay might have sounded like, what S.L.’s intention might have been. I realized it’s very much about consciousness and about the impossibility of accessing another consciousness. The point is that the only consciousness that you can access is your own, and the only way you can access it is in the present moment, which is what happens in the final version.

Another one of Meghan’s edits was, “I want the story to end with the narrator.” I pushed back against that because I wanted it to be about S.L. But you were completely right that it was actually about the narrator’s consciousness and how she’s making sense of this emptiness that she’s been presented: S.L.’s final piece. I think a lot of editorial process works like this. You hear something and say, “There’s no way I’m going to do that.” But then you do it, in your own way.

MO I love hearing all of this. It’s like the hidden story to what was happening in our emails because in my mind it wasn’t so much that I wanted you to come back necessarily to the narrator, but something felt a little coy about the ending.

AS Yes, that was a little wink.

MO At one point, I made this truly terrible suggestion, “Well maybe you should come back to the essay.” We had a couple of very good readers at the Review who are former NYU MFA students—Maggie Millner and Rachel Mannheimer—who both loved the story and had a similar reaction. So I felt I had to forge on and say, “We still don’t quite think it’s there!” But I wasn’t sure. I think because your aesthetic is so rich and so complicated, it wasn’t the kind of editing where I could say, “This is what needs to happen.” You have to be willing as an editor to have really bad ideas sometimes and hope that the writer will understand. You present it as “Here’s this idea. It’s not right, but maybe you can understand the question behind it.”

I sometimes think as an editor that you’re not just trying to be a good reader, you’re also trying to be almost a bad reader. Not so bad that you ruin the piece in the end, but to push back against it a little. One thing that’s so brilliant about your revision is that sometimes what you’re asking for as a reader or an editor is for more information. But sometimes what we’re really talking about is that the sound or the aesthetic is not quite right yet. One of the things that you did at the end was that you came back to the essay in the sense that you brought back the tone of discourse: “Given the overwhelming interest in S.L.’s painting, surprisingly little attention has been paid to her singular essay ‘Artist Demystified.’” That voice of the essayist enters again in a way that made the piece very rich for me.

There’s this beautiful passage about the walls of S.L.’s studio looking different over the different times of the day. I thought it was so brilliant that you ended with this act of looking where the reader and the narrator of the piece become conflated, because we’re both looking at the walls without any interpretation of the moment. How did you come up with that last line?

AS You came up with it!

MO No, I did not!

AS You did, you did! You didn’t say, “Let’s end on this line,” but you said, “One more”—is it “lick”?

MO One more “beat”?

AS One more beat. Yes. I love this, because it doesn’t necessarily mean, “Write out an entire scene.” You think of it as the tempo of the piece, like, “Have us stay here for a tiny bit longer.” I found that very liberating, the idea of one more beat.

On the ending: When the narrator goes to S.L.’s studio for the first time, she says the walls were changing color, and Meghan said, “This seems like such a central piece of information for the studio,” whereas I was being playful and I wanted the piece to have a ghost story element. When she said that, I thought, “This is significant.” I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it’s an example of when you need an editor to show you how the pieces of a story work together and to show you your own metaphors or your own motifs. When she said that, I thought, “The walls are like S.L.’s paintings, because you can’t hold onto them. They’re so difficult to imagine and you sort of have to be there.” It’s like consciousness itself. When you said that, I felt, “So maybe that’s a better image to end on than the empty studio,which is more direct, but doesn’t trigger the imagination in the same way.”

MO With the sentence, “The walls have begun their transformation,” there’s almost a way the consciousness of the story and our experience of it continue. It’s not shut down in quite the same way as the empty studio, which, you’re right, has a certain meaning. I love what you said about being shown where our own images are working, what our motifs are that we hadn’t noticed. People often ask me, “Well, as an editor you must really be able to revise and edit your own work, and I’m like, “Sadly it doesn’t work that way.” Why is that? Why can’t we look at our work the way we can look at someone else’s work and say, “Oh, of course. You need to move this paragraph here, and this is so rich, could you…” Yet at the same time we all have to train ourselves to be revisers and editors of our own work. Could you talk about the difference between revising and editing on your own and working with editors?

AS The way I edit is to say, “Copy and paste all the parts that you think are working, the parts that don’t make you cringe or think, “Get rid of all of the other parts and see what remains of the good stuff.” That’s how I wrote my first novel. I was very frustrated, and I kept on reading it saying, “It doesn’t make sense. Should I just add more here so that the characters’ motivations become clear?” I deleted everything. I had maybe 15,000 words leftover from this massive novel.

MO You mean you went from 100,000 words to 15,000?

AS Yes, then I looked at the document and all of a sudden it became very clear to me what the story was, and it was so easy to write that story. Of course, editors don’t see that giant, very messy work. If they do, they reject it. When you begin working with an editor, you realize that they all have different styles. Your way, with “One more beat,” really worked for me.

MO That point is one that I want to underscore. It’s been my experience that the best thing you can do with edits that you don’t agree with is say, “This is addressing something that’s not working.” I want to underscore again that sometimes that process of editing is imprecise. It isn’t mathematics. It is a history of reading that the editor is giving back to you. So part of what you did so brilliantly was hear the real note or question that the editor was asking in terms of your own understanding of the story. Because you will have an understanding of the story—even though the editor will be able to point out things that you might not have noticed about it. I also think it’s the case that the author knows things about the story that no one else ever knows.

AS A danger for me when editing, because I write very concise pieces, is to shorten a piece even more—and to make it a punch line. Which is also why I really liked the process of editing this piece, because it was one of the rare moments when my story became richer after editing—as opposed to, “Let me cut so much that it’s very clear and there’s no mystery surrounding the characters’ motivations.” Perhaps the bigger danger when I’m editing for myself is making the story easier. To think, “What’s something I can send to an editor and it’ll be easy to understand?” I don’t take the longer path of trying to explore a situation.

But usually if you want to cut it out, it means you really don’t want it. It means you can’t be bothered to work with it even if it’s beautiful writing.

MO The book I’m working on now, I just cut ten thousand words. There’s a very easy edit that would solve a lot of my problems, but it would make the book easier, so I’m resisting it. I think some writers resist revision and editing because of this feeling that you can lose track of it and then you have to find it again. Do you have this experience?

AS Yes, I think I lose track, but then I trust editors. I’ve never worked with a bad editor, so I think they probably see the overall picture.

MO That’s one of the challenges too, as an editor and as a writer. As a writer, it’s exactly what you identified: How do you trust the editors without trusting them too much? And as an editor, something that I think about all the time is, “How do I not sand all the edges off?” I’m the kind of editor who doesn’t mind and actually really appreciates when a writer says, “Actually, I think that piece is important.” But when I’m edited, my initial response is “No, no, no, no, and no,” and I have learned over the years to read the notes that an editor gives me, put them aside, then go back to them having had time to internalize their suggestions. Then I can see, “Oh, I see how you’re hearing that, which is really different from how I hear it. My hearing of that isn’t working.” Part of it is figuring out if it’s that my hearing of it isn’t working for everybody, or just for this person in particular. That’s where going to a friend or in my case I go to my partner a lot, to say, “What do you think of this edit?” And I expect him to respond with, “You’re right! Don’t take that edit.” But often he’s like “Yeah, that’s a really good edit.” It’s very hard.

Katie Kitamura How do you establish trust and create an atmosphere where the writer is open to hearing your note? It’s important to give notes well, but also to follow your instinct and know when not to take notes, even if you trust your editor. When Hari [Kunzru] and I were doing our books at the same time, in the copy-editing stage, I was doing this tradeoff where I would keep one edit for myself and then give one to the copyeditor. Keep one to myself and give one to the copy editor. Then Hari just wrote at the top of his manuscript, “Stet all,” which means you reject all changes. I thought, “Why am I doing this trading over what is essentially style?” Is it because you’re trying to preserve a relationship with somebody you haven’t even met? How do you negotiate that?

AS I knew I trusted Meghan because all of her “one more beats” were at the points in the story that I thought were pivotal. If she had said that in random places, the way some readers in workshop will say something like, “I want to hear more about the aunts” or “I love this part; give me more” and you think, “No, that’s not what the story is about”—I wouldn’t have trusted her. The fact that she was making that note in all of the important places—I knew that she understood the story and that she understood. This is where the story is trying to communicate something.”

MO It’s a good question: how to establish trust. When I send an edit back, I do try to spend a fair amount of time writing what I call an edit note. It can be very brief, but in the note I try to describe the thing I’m talking about so that we have a shared sense of how I read the story. Then the writer can say, “You know what? You’re not talking about the story that I wrote,” if I got it wrong. There are some pieces where what needs to be done is very clear; you’re just working on the mechanics of the story. A paragraph is too long; we need another detail here. Then there are pieces where the edits are less exact. With those I try to establish trust by saying, “This is what I’m seeing; this is how I’m reading it.” And I try to make clear that editing isn’t a science. When I’m in doubt, I’ll usually say it.

AS Writing is like trying to practice hypnosis on yourself. If I were to allow myself to think about all of my book editor’s objections, I couldn’t write it. I have to write the novel that I have in mind. Make that the best possible thing and then hold my breath and show it to her. Although I do have a reader, which is my husband, and thinking about what he will say often makes me change course and say, “Oh, that’s so sentimental” or “This is such a cheap way of putting it” or “I’m doing this just for the sake of style.”

Meghan O’Rourke is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness and The Long Goodbye, as well as three collections of poetry. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, and a Whiting Nonfiction Award, she resides in New Haven, where she teaches at Yale University and is the editor of The Yale Review.
Originally published:
April 13, 2020


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