Very Fine Day #42: Saeed Jones
"I realised how quiet and peaceful it was and I just immediately burst into tears".
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“I think I'm just trying to work on being transparent for people, because I do sense that we intimidate ourselves out of our own destinies, I think, a lot. And especially with people we admire.”
This interview is about honesty. Honesty, I guess, and transparency in who you are, what you have done, and how you have done it.
SAEED JONES is our guest on this edition of VERY FINE DAY. Saeed is a writer and poet who has won numerous awards for his work. His memoir, “How We Fight For Our Lives” is both brutally real and pure while also carrying itself in some kind of way. That’s really the easiest explanation I can give you. Saeed writes in some kind of way. It just works. It seems easy. It’s not. It wasn’t. And we certainly talk about that in our conversation. But still, there’s a certain kind of beauty in all that.
It was great to talk to Saeed. I think a lot about what it takes to write about yourself – and inspect yourself - in the public eye. And Saeed has done that. He has received all sorts of acclaim, but what I found most interesting was the impact getting those thoughts and feelings and words out there clearly had on Saeed the person. It’s a great conversation. I don’t know what to tell you – I struggled to pick a favourite quote to use as the pull-quote.
I hope you’re well. Mariah Carey is back in the charts. Couple weeks to Christmas. Celebrate it - or don’t. Take some time to be with yourself, in amongst being around others.
That’s it from me.
See you down the road.
VFD: Where are you right now?
Saeed Jones: I'm in my apartment in Columbus, Ohio.
VFD: Have you been there a lot lately? I’m guessing for the last two years?
Saeed Jones: Oh yeah, I moved here in September of 2019. It was kind of perfect timing - I moved here and I felt really welcomed by the community and the neighbourhood. Writers I happen to know through the internet that live here... everyone was really supportive. So I really felt like I was able to get here and set up my home. And then my memoir, “How We Fight for Our Lives” came out in October. So then I was travelling almost non-stop from October 2019 right until February 2020. The last set of travel before the pandemic, I did three book events in three cities in seven days, and so I was like: Oh, you know, I could use a rest.
VFD: Did you have events to do before the pandemic hit?
Saeed Jones: I was transitioning. I think it was gonna be a month and a half at home, so I was like: Oh I can start to get to know the city a little bit more, say hello to my neighbours, all that kind of stuff. And then I was going to start doing paid book events, which I love doing and it's always really exciting.
So, at the beginning of the pandemic, for a day I was like: I’ll rest, that sounds healthy.
And then very quickly I had to turn off my email notifications because every time I looked there was another paid gig getting cancelled. And for writers, that's how a lot of book authors support themselves. So it got real, real quick.
VFD: What did you do, being genuinely new in that area and not being able to go out? I don't know how strict it was in the US, but it was strict here, and I imagine you couldn't socialise.
Saeed Jones: Yeah, at first it was very scary because I live by myself - I was single - but I ended up adopting my wonderful dog about a month in. But y’know, we didn't know what we didn't know. I was really trying to be careful.
At the beginning, I was genuinely terrified. And then the terror slowly but surely subsided and then it became: I'm just trying to be responsible, I'm just trying to do the right thing. I'm grateful that Columbus, and my neighbourhood in particular, has a lot of green space, a lot of parks, and just a lot of beautiful side streets.
When I think about how before I moved here, I was living in the Lower East Side of New York. I don’t know what I would have done if I was in the city there. So I did feel, particularly when the weather and spring started to happen, that it was also scary but I remember noticing the trees and gardens in my neighbourhood with new intensity, because my days were suddenly so simple. And everything was moving so slow. It was before everyone was like: Oh, we can do book events over Zoom. For a while there was nothing going on. So I just started walking. It's kind of like Isaac Fitzgerald with “Walk it off”. I was kind of doing the same thing for a while there.
VFD: Yeah. I remember when I was last in New York for a little while, I just turned to my friend who I was staying with and was like: I just realised that for a month I haven't heard a bird. Which is something I’ve never experienced before.
Saeed Jones: It’s very unsettling.
VFD: How long were you in New York for?
Saeed Jones: I lived in New York - and I feel like I'll always have a relationship to that city - about a decade.
VFD: And then why Ohio?
Saeed Jones: Oh God, so many reasons. I mean, by 2019 I had been working at BuzzFeed News and in media for six years. A lot of it was great. And it wasn’t all about politics, but from 2016 onwards it was almost like all of the the cons for working in media - for being in news - just intensified. And I know you know that as well.
I just felt like I saw no reason why anything is going to get less intense, and I think I was right. Living in New York, I felt like I was one kind of swimmer used to a certain kind of pace and a certain kind of turbulence, and then suddenly you realise, I'm trying to swim in whitewater rapids, this isn't what I signed up for, this is not what I'm built for. It felt dangerous. I really felt that way. By the time I left, I was like: I don't trust myself in this job anymore, I don't trust myself in this city. And they're so entangled. I think, particularly as a writer, I moved to New York City basically right out of graduate school so everything was entangled in New York.
And so just as I was realising I wanted to become an independent writer and step away from this relationship to the media, it also seemed clear that would also mean, at least for a while, stepping away from New York. Because I couldn't distinguish them, y’know? And then as it happens, while I'm trying to figure all of that out, I came here for a work trip and fell in love.
Oh, my goodness, I just fell head over heels in love with Columbus. And so I was like: Oh, AND it's more affordable? Okay.
VFD: More space, easier access, more utilities. It doesn’t smell all the time.
Saeed Jones: I mean, look…
Thank goodness I’m vaccinated, and I’m dating someone who lives in New York so I'm there a little bit more. And listen, when I was there in August...
People who live in New York, they think New York only smells in August because of the heat. I'm like: no, baby. The moment the doors at LaGuardia Airport open you're like: Whoa. And I don’t know if it’s just the exhaust or what, but I was like: New York fucking stinks. And I did not have an appreciation for that until I was gone for two and a half years.
VFD: Yeah. It's the smell and it's also the hum of air conditioners that I always associate with it as well. I was like: Are my ears messing up? And then you're like: Oh, no, this is five million air conditioners all running at once.
Saeed Jones: Yeah. I mean, exactly to what you're saying, it really took me two or three years to really even realise, because I spent the first two decades of my life being like: I will die if I don't get to New York. So I worked so hard to get to New York. I was a little gay black kid in Texas and I was like: I'm gonna make it, and I'm gonna get to that city so I can be myself. And then I did it. I really did. And I'm so proud of myself.
But then I just remember in 2017 I had a trip to Portland - I was teaching a writer's workshop - and it was really the beginning of me realising I needed a change. Because I woke up - I think it's on the campus of Reed College, I think that's the school that we were at - and I woke up early one morning and no one else was awake yet. I made some coffee and there was a swing set in front of where I was staying, and I just got my little coffee, and I sat on the swings, and I realised how quiet and peaceful it was. And I just immediately burst into tears. I was devastated. It had been so long since I'd experienced that kind of tranquillity. And I'm not like a nature ‘woowoo’ kind of person, but suddenly I realised I've been living at this really intense pitch, and I can't even process anything less intense. And I think that was the beginning of me realising I needed to make some changes for myself.
VFD: Yeah. And you realise as well that the majority of people live like that.
Saeed Jones: Godspeed.
VFD: Whenever I see people on Twitter, or talking online about, “People who aren't online”, and they're like: they don’t get it. I'm like: No, no, they get it! We’re just broken.
Saeed Jones: I think about social performance a lot. And I think about the various masks we deploy, if not to survive than to maintain during difficult circumstances. And I see a real throughline to the kind of masks I would put on to survive coming of age as a queer black kid in the South where you're like: I'm fine, I'm tough, you can't scare me, because I've already got my dukes up. I see it a lot. And I've been that kind of person who is like: New York is wearing you out. But you refuse to admit it. It's intense, it’s a wonderful city, and I think that intensity generates creativity and art and a lot of wonderful stuff, but I think people are lying to themselves if they think New York City is an easy place to live.
VFD: What was it like growing up in Texas?
Saeed Jones: Pretty rough!
VFD: I was gonna say, but I don't want to put words in your mouth.
Saeed Jones: Two highlights I will say. I was raised Nichiren Buddhist, which is to say that weekly, my mom and I were in people's homes. A lot of potluck dinners and meetings with other Buddhists, and every family would be of a different ethnicity. I remember being pretty familiar with Korean food by the time I was in the second grade, y’know what I mean? Just all culture. And so I really grew up with diversity just being what I was used to, and I was always learning about different cultures and that obviously became increasingly important.
Then there were Speech and Debate teachers. English teachers. I was that kid for a while that would eat lunch in the English teacher's classroom.
VFD: Very cool.
Saeed Jones: Oh yeah. Eventually I became the power nerd. That was my next phase. There were certainly parts of my coming-of-age where I was really loved and taken care of. And it's wild now, because I think politically, in some ways, things have only gotten more intense and more spiteful.
When I look at Texas politics it looks almost venomous. People don't just want to live the way they want to live, they want to make sure everyone else is doing the exact same thing. When I think of the violent rhetoric that's underscoring what's going on with reproductive rights - or lack thereof - and things like critical race theory, I see a lot of earlier iterations of that when I was growing up. So it's scary to think: Wow, it was hard in the ‘90s and 2000s when I was growing up in North Texas, how the hell is it even worse now? That’s what I feel, though.
VFD: And then at school, I know you said you were eating in the English teacher’s room and stuff like that – was it always writing and reading? That’s what got you going?
Saeed Jones: A little bit of theatre. It was also because I went to a pretty big high school. We had something like two or three thousand students. I always tell people that our passing periods were ten minutes because depending on where your classes were you could legitimately need to be walking that whole ten minutes, which is pretty wild.
VFD: That’s like college.
Saeed Jones: Now I look back and I’m like: yeah, I might as well have been in a fairly small college. So for a while, I think I would keep myself afloat by being in every single extracurricular club you could think of. I even went to a couple meetings of Future Farmers of America. I don't know what the hell I was doing. But I did it. I remember at one point, I think junior year, my mom actually grounded me from extracurriculars, because she was like: You're too into it!
VFD: So it was always writing and reading, but then how did you figure out that that was not so much what you wanted to do but what you could do? What was the switch where you like: Oh, this is a job.
Saeed Jones: Yeah, that's an excellent question. Speech and Debate opened a lot of doors. It was always writing and reading, but then Speech and Debate was the extracurricular - of all the many I did - that made me go: Whoa. Things started paying off very quickly.
We have some natural talents, and you might not understand that what you have is special. You're just like: I dunno? I'm just doing it? But I really just took to it. I like talking. I love talking. I love communicating. I love looking at an audience and thinking about how I can connect with them. Thinking: which way do I need to go to be able to meet them in the eye? That's just natural for me. And so that opened doors for me and that got me to college. That's how I paid for my undergraduate education: scholarships.
I had to fill out all that financial aid stuff on my own. My mom didn't know how to do all of that, she was raising me as a single parent. But Speech and Debate – I got a full scholarship – it was incredible. And I was just doing this thing I'd be doing anyway! Just talking. I was just like: Oh, alright! And then in college, poetry and prose performance are a part of the umbrella of speech and debate activities, so I did those. And then I'd always been writing on my own, but I got curious. I went to some poetry slams, and I would make it to the final round but not win. And I was very competitive.
VFD: You dealt with it well, obviously. Committed your entire life to proving them wrong.
Saeed Jones: I was mad. I was like: What do you mean I'm not good at something immediately?! And so I signed up for a creative writing class the following semester, initially just because I wanted to get better at slam. That was it. But I loved it. I loved the workshop.
I think I knew that writing was always going to be a passion of mine and I was writing what I didn’t even really think of as poems. It was just lyrics in a notebook. I didn't understand. And I think part of this is being a first generation college student. I didn't grow up around writers and editors and publicists. But taking the workshop again, a professor told me: You should actually lean into this. Keep going, you’ve got a lot to learn, but there's something here. And I was like: really? It just hadn't occurred to me. And he told me to submit to literary magazines and that I should check out graduate programs. I was like, What??
Now, things are a little bit different, I hope, because of things like social media and representation. I hope young people are able to see so many more possibilities. But at the time… I just couldn't fathom it. I didn't understand how books happened. I was like: People just become authors. It seemed as far-flung as: how do you become Angelina Jolie? How do you map that? I don’t know! Or like an astronaut! So I ended up changing my major and I went all in on poetry. And then, lo and behold, I got accepted to graduate school for poetry. And that is what got me to the New York area.
VFD: When did poetry click for you? Was that a childhood thing, or was that something you learned?
Saeed Jones: I actually still have - it’s the only thing I’ve kept - my notebook. My diary from high school. I lie in there a lot. You can literally see stuff that’s like: Oh, Saeed learned a new vocabulary word in AP English this week and thus he’s working it in. And I'm trying to use all these elaborate metaphors. Basically to avoid talking about “I like boys.” Anything but. I'm writing these elaborate poems about how I definitely have a crush on that guy in the National Honour Society.
Even though I was being deceptive because I couldn't face it, there was something about the privacy of the page. No one could tell me what to do. I could use words to create some sense of reality, even if it wasn't accurate. I'm still awed by this. I can create words that can resonate with a feeling, that can make you feel something, that can honour something. I can move you. I can move myself. I remember that is what I was interested in. And then everything else became interesting.
But initially, it felt like I was giving myself an emotional vocabulary. But I often felt...small. I felt invisible. People would be like: What are you talking about? But that's how I felt at the time. But then, on the page, I could be so confident and use these big words. And it was incredible. It felt like a superhero being able to make things out of thin air.
VFD: Yeah. I guess on that point, were you always comfortable writing about yourself, and your feelings, even if it was somewhat clouded with metaphors and whatever else? I think one thing when I think about you, which I find interesting and also brave, is to write as much about yourself as you do. There's a certain kind of courage there. Was that learned? Or is that from Speech and Debate?
Saeed Jones: I mean, first of all: thank you. I think it was learned and earned. As I'm thinking about things I was writing in college, pieces I was submitting in those first few workshops, it was very rarely about me.
Even in my notebook, you can literally see I go from all third person… It's so interesting, almost all of the personas are women. So I’m writing about desire, but as a female character, usually from mythology, because I really love mythos and folklore. And then as I start to try to write about feelings - and this kind of went on into college - writing about desire, I would switch to the second person. And frankly, it's something I notice when I teach workshops now, in a student's nonfiction or memoir manuscript when they start changing tense. Even in therapy, I still do this - when you start getting to the real stuff, I know that a lot of us naturally switch to the second person. We don't say: Oh, and that was devastating for me, you’re like: That's just so devastating for people.
VFD: Not me! I’m fine!
Saeed Jones: I did that a lot. I was getting closer, but it was still difficult. You even see this in my memoir. In my senior year I was almost killed by a guy that I met at a party who was in the closet and had a true crisis of masculinity. That’s how I think of it: a violent crisis of masculinity. And I immediately started writing it for my nonfiction workshop. And now the logic doesn't even make sense to me, but I submitted it as a fiction piece. I wrote about it in third person, and this is very dark and I unpack it in the book, but in the piece I submitted for that workshop I wrote about it like I actually died. And that I could see myself floating away.
Clearly, I was desperate to grapple with what had happened. How terrifying it was. But even in - literally - a nonfiction world. I’m pretty sure I failed the assignment. I'm pretty sure I got a D from my professor for that piece, because he was like: This is a nonfiction workshop. Like… the one thing you’re supposed to do.
VFD: Is not be an angel...
Saeed Jones: I think that really speaks to how I now feel like it’s as easy as breathing for me to talk about my experiences in real-time. That's why I started the newsletter “Werk-in-Progress”. I'm trying to make it as immediate as I can to really show people with a sense of transparency that I am figuring this out, day by day. I would say it may well have been until I was in graduate school, and even then, before I really started to write poems and essays that began to be seen as more akin to the work I think you know me for. So yeah, it took a long time.
VFD: Yeah, I mean, that's comforting, in a way.
Saeed Jones: I hope so, yeah.
VFD: And obviously your memoirs are the most in-depth I've read you be, in terms of unpacking trauma and personal experience and being that open. As I read it, my brain is just going: I would not write this and let thousands of people read this about me! How long was that book in your head? And how much did you have to unpack that?
Saeed Jones: Yeah, it was pretty long. I think I'm a pretty slow writer. I think I take a long time to parse things. Because it's just hard to write but also, I will say, the opening chapter of the book where I find the photograph and everything - and frankly I think the most difficult chapters in the book with my grandmother in Memphis and the church - those were two essays that I worked on in graduate school. So at that point, the memoir was a dream.
I remember my mom calling me when I was walking across campus and she was like: I told grandma that you plan on writing a memoir one day and I explained what a memoir is. And I stopped walking, I was so nervous. And I was like: What did she say? And she was like: Oh, she just said: ‘Uh oh’. Which was real. Which I loved. I loved that. My grandmother never tried to control the narrative. She's like: Yeah, I can't say I wouldn’t do it again.
So, almost a decade. Grad school - that would have been 2008 or 2009 - and then by 2015 I'd written much more material but I had about a hundred pages that I’m like: I would publish this today. I'm that confident in these pages. And that's when I sold the book. I'd written those one hundred pages over and over again.
But it took a long time because at first I was scared to write a memoir. I was young. I mean, at this point, I'm in my early 20s and people have pretty snobby ideas about what kind of person - and they usually mean straight white man - and what kind of life deserves that kind of format. So I thought maybe it would be an essay collection. I was a little sheepish, I was a little shy.
VFD: Yeah. Still, to be that open… it’s confronting. But this sounds like a “me” thing. I probably need to unpack that probably a bit more. This is a free therapy session.
How did you learn to share that stuff directly? Was your approach to give it to a few friends and then family? Or was it literally like: Alright, here's 100 pages. I hope no one's mad. Because here we go!
Saeed Jones: Oh, in terms of family? Oh my gosh, well, I can’t remember exactly when the switch flipped, but it did. I don't even think I realised I was uncomfortable but clearly I was, writing about myself in first person. I was like: No, this isn't a character, this is me, this is Saeed Jones talking about his experience. But once I figured it out I was all in. I wish I could be like this day, this moment, but I can’t really tell you.
But I will say, once it changed, writing about myself and writing about sex and writing about those dark moments… that's not the hard part. Writing the memoir was difficult because of how family is implicated. I think that's part of why the book took so long, because I think I was trying to figure out, initially, how to do something that's impossible.
I don't think you can write a coming-of-age story without writing about your family, whatever the makeup of your family is. Initially, my mom was in it but just barely, because I was like: Oh, that's too much. And then my grandmother, I was like: Oh my god. But then, well, what about my uncle? You just realise: oh, no, you kind of can't halfway do it. So that was a challenging part of the memoir. That was me waking up in the middle of the night, or wondering if I should include this or not. So I didn't show it to any family members until it was done.
My grandmother, my uncle, my aunt, a couple of other close friends or family members who kind of appear in a significant way, I sent them bound manuscripts right before it went out as a galley to the industry because I was like: Before all these strangers are reading it, I want you to at least read it. And I included a letter to explain my intention, and to let them know where they were in the book, because I figure some people might just want to read where they are. And of course, they all read it all.
I realised I was trying to keep them from reading all the sex stuff, but of course, that's the perfect way to get someone to read all that. I felt what I owed them was an opportunity to read it first. And we had some conversations, some of my family members. Some of them didn't. And then I let them know. I was like: I'm not really accepting feedback. Short of something being wildly inaccurate, like: Saeed, that church was in Montana! Whatever, then we'll talk about it.
But I tried to compassionately be clear. I'm doing this to give you the opportunity to talk with me before there's a public conversation. But a memoir is my accounting for how I remember things. It's literally about the art of memory, which is unreliable, and I very much let them know - and you see it in the book - that I doubt myself a lot. And that this may be how I feel, this may be what I recall, but I'm not trying to present the events in the book as the official record. And so you may not like how I write about you, but maybe we shoulda had a better relationship.
VFD: They should have thought about that.
Saeed Jones: I mean, yeah.
VFD: OK. How did you end up in media? Because all of this is poetry and writing, and slam poetry...
Saeed Jones: That's a great question.
I was teaching high school. That was my last full-time job. And I thought I would do that for a few years and then hopefully publish a few books and then end up in academia, because that's a proven track record for a lot of poets. And I taught a bit of college when I was in graduate school and I enjoyed it. Certain aspects of it.
Then, my mom died at the end of my first year of teaching high school, and I was so thrown, Brad. Now, in the middle of this pandemic, I have such compassion for people because I couldn't function. I was like: Why is the world still spinning? My mom is dead. Y'all got me fucked up. I couldn't function. Weirdly, for those first nine months after my mom passed away, writing was the only thing I could do. I would forget to eat. Writing was the only thing. And then I look at everything I wrote during that period and I'm like: Oof. I tried to include some of that in the book and I was like: Ooh you don't want that. So it was such an intense year.
And then I needed to reintroduce myself to the world of the living. That's how I felt. I felt like I existed in a liminal space after my mom died. Like a fog of grief. And then I circled the globe in eight months by myself. It felt like I was trying to touch Earth everywhere I could. Grief really takes you into your head, it really takes you into the past. Everything you see - it's like you're seeing it through multiple filters - and it's just wild. And so many people are going through that right now. So, when I came out of the fog, I was like: Well, shit. I haven't been working a full time job in two years. I live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I'm black, I’m gay, I’m 26 years old, and I have two degrees in poetry. What the fuck am I gonna do? I was terrified. I was so scared.
I have these moments when I go through a lot of crises and I'm just like: well, maybe life would be easier if I'm small. Maybe there'll be less hurt if I just stay small. And no shade to people who want a small life.
I was begging my friend Isaac, because I was in San Francisco at the time, to help me get a job at a bookstore. I just saw myself writing poems and just putting away books. I just wanted to disappear, because maybe if I can hide from life, nothing bad will happen. And, lo and behold, I ended up getting the most high profile job of my life.
Chris Geidner was a Twitter friend, and I think the year before he had gone from reporting for an LGBT news publication in DC to this place called BuzzFeed. I hadn't heard of it before and didn't have any opinion either way. I literally only read it for his reporting, and I was impressed that there was a place, like a newsroom, that understood that at this time, while reporting on the marriage equality court cases that were making their way to the Supreme Court, it was worth having a dedicated reporter. That was really the only opinion I had of BuzzFeed.
And then he sent me a job posting because he was like: We need an editor, I'm just doing this on my own, and it's pretty chaotic here. And he said queer news and culture is so much more than just: are we going to get the right to get married? And I was like: good point! And then I think that day he sent it to me I was looking for executive assistant jobs. Just like: Oh, God, oh no, like how many words can you type? I just felt so lost. And I had such a healthy distrust of my own instincts. I think it was just the right moment to apply for that opportunity, because I was like: Well, what the hell do I know about myself at this point?
I think now, I would have talked myself out of it. I think now I would say: Oh, you didn’t go to journalism school, what do you know? But I was like: Oh, what the hell. And so I started at BuzzFeed in January 2013. And I remember having to ask Ben Smith, my Editor-in-Chief, what the hell a dek was.
VFD: That’s a good start.
Saeed Jones: And he came over to the computer to show me… Just… Oh my gosh.
VFD: Well, it worked out I think.
Saeed Jones: I am a fast learner. I will say that for myself. I got there, but it was rough.
VFD: Well, thanks so much for chatting. I appreciate it.
Saeed Jones: Yeah, this was great. I think I'm just trying to work on being transparent for people, because I do sense that we intimidate ourselves out of our own destinies, I think, a lot. And especially with people we admire.
We go: oh, I can never. And so I just think I'm proud of my work. I'm proud of what I've done. And I just think I'm not ashamed of the journey and how much I had to learn. I think in fact, I hope it empowers people.
Writing a memoir is hard, so please don't read my memoir and go: I could never, because for so long I thought I couldn't. And while I was doing it, I was like: What am I doing? I think we can help set each other free if we start speaking a little bit more candidly about what we're learning in real time, or what we learned in real time, because I think the problem with the internet right now is we're so afraid to mess up and say the wrong thing. We think our lives are gonna be ruined in a day, and so there’s this movement towards being perfect. And I think that's gonna mess us up in the long run.
VFD: Yeah, I think it is like that right now and we just don't have the above-view to be like: Oh, that's really unhealthy. But I totally get the transparency thing. Every time I read anything that I think is phenomenal, I just think: I wish I could read the V1 draft of this. To make me feel better, to be like: this was awful once and now it's not. And I feel like that'd be good. There’s a business idea.
Saeed Jones: For my newsletter, it’s literally called Werk-in-Progress, so I have some screenshots of early drafts of some poems that are going into my next book. My intention is like: Oh, it would be helpful to publish and show these. But honestly, I think the second draft is usually worse than the first draft.
VFD: That's comforting. It only gets worse.
Saeed Jones: It only gets worse until it becomes better. And it's usually not better until right before it comes together. So, it's fine.
VFD: Well, thanks again.