Why do authors rewrite?

I’m a big fan of rewriting.  But here’s an article from the Boston Globe making the point that rewriting hasn’t always been the standard.  One reason was technology:

In the age of Shakespeare and Milton, paper was an expensive luxury; blotting out a few lines was one thing, but producing draft after draft would have been quite another. Writers didn’t get to revise during the publishing process, either. Printing was slow and messy, and in the rare case a writer got to see a proof of his work—that is, a printed sample of the text, laid out like a book—he had to travel in person to a publishing center like London.

Another was a philosophical opposition to revisiting your original inspiration.  If you believe that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions, you’re not going to approve of a writing method that is deliberately unspontaneous.

The author points to Modernism as the source of our current deification of rewriting:

The Modernists wanted to produce avant-garde literature—literature that was less spontaneous and enthusiastic than it was startling and enigmatic. In an interview with the Paris Review, Hemingway famously described his “principle of the iceberg”: “There is seven-eighths of it under the water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.”

This is all pretty straightforward, although I’d point out that there’s solid evidence that Shakespeare did do some rewriting–for example, of King Lear, where the Quarto version is substantially different from that of the First Folio.  And I think the author doesn’t give enough weight to writing-as-a-job vs. writing-to-create-art. If your next meal depends on getting your novel finished, you’re not going to spend months revising its conclusion.

I’m on board, though, with the author’s discussion of the typewriter’s effect on rewriting.  The typewriter didn’t actually make rewriting easier; in a sense, it made the process harder.

Today we equate a keyboard with speed, the fastest way to get words down, but as Sullivan points out this wasn’t always the case. In fact, a typescript offered a chance to slow down. Most Modernist writers, like Hemingway with “The Sun Also Rises,” wrote by hand and then painstakingly typed up the results. That took time, but seeing their writing in such dramatically different forms—handwritten in a notebook, typed on a page, printed as a proof—encouraged them to revise it aggressively.

This was certainly my experience when I wrote my original drafts by hand.

Finally, the author points out that the computer may paradoxically make us less inclined to rewrite:

Today, most of us compose directly on our computers. Instead of generating physical page after physical page, which we can then reread and reorder, we now create a living document that, increasingly, is not printed at all until it becomes a final, published product. While this makes self-editing easier, Sullivan thinks it may paradoxically make wholesale revision, the kind that leads to radically rethinking our work, more difficult.

I think that’s right.  As I approach the end of the first draft of the novel I’m working on, I’m mulling how to approach the rewrite.  Do I start with the existing Word document, and just edit and add and cut and paste until I’m satisfied with the result?  Or do I re-keyboard the whole thing?  The former is certainly easier; just thinking about the latter makes me tired.  But re-keyboarding might cause me to re-imagine the story at a deeper level, and that might ultimately lead to a stronger finished product.

What’s a writer to do?

Future perfect

The deeper I get into the novel I’m working on, the more irrelevant my outline, and my earlier chapters, seem to become.  I’m now closing in on the halfway point, and I’m in a chapter that I had no clue would need to be written when I began the book.

I am a big fan of rewriting, and I long to go back and set myself straight about how the beginning of the novel really needs to work.  But that’s stupid–in another 20,000 words I might have a totally new set of changes to make.  So I litter my text with bracketed editorial notes reminding me about what has to change in the next draft.  Today I realized that I had neglected to give one of my characters a last name–it hadn’t seemed necessary way back when I introduced him, but his role in the novel keeps growing.  So my note says: [Scott will have been given a last name when he is introduced.]

If I have my grammatical terms correct, the verb tense I am using in these notes is the future perfect.  And that seems about right.  Someday my novel will be perfect; just not yet.

Hemingway tries to get the words right

Apropos of these post about revising and rewriting, it turns out the Simon & Schuster has released a new edition of A Farewell to Arms that includes all Hemingway’s alternate endings.  He claimed that he wrote the ending 39 times before he was satisfied.  The basic issue, he famously said, was “getting the words right.” Turns out that the actual number of endings was probably more like 47.

Here’s the first page of the manuscript, which is stored, with the rest of Hemingway’s papers, at the JFK Library in Dorchester, MA, about ten miles away from where I am sitting.

Endings are hard because they are so important. They don’t need to sum up what the novel was all about, but they control what readers are going to be feeling when they put the book down.

For close readers of Hemingway the endings are a fascinating glimpse into how the novel could have concluded on a different note, sometimes more blunt and sometimes more optimistic. And since modern authors tend to produce their work on computers, the new edition also serves as an artifact of a bygone craft, with handwritten notes and long passages crossed out, giving readers a sense of an author’s process.

One of the endings was suggested by Fitzgerald.  Speaking of Fitzgerald, has anyone written a better ending than the one he wrote for The Great Gatsby?

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.