Sentences — November 12, 2008, 5:46 pm

Maybe We Should Just Change It All

“All writing is rewriting,” runs the annoying adage. Annoying because all adages, in their hectoring certainty, feel like sharp pokes in the ear. And annoying squared because, as anyone who’s ever had to write anything knows, one’s first version (however hard to get down) is so invariably inadequate as to typically require wholesale redress. Lucky the knitter (I say in almost total ignorance of knitting) who can work a sweater to completion without (I’m guessing) having to unravel a first version of it back into the ball of yarn it once was, to call it done.

In the atlas-sized series of photo-facsimiles of Finnegans Wake compiled by Garland in the 1970s, we get a ringside seat on Joyce’s accretive method. First drafts of sections are short. Subsequent drafts expand. All the matter from the early drafts remains, like bones. Muscle and fat get interposed, overlaid. The whole fattens (in the sense of “enriched”).

This is unusual; thinning seems the rule. Novels tend to be larger than they need to be. Writers and their editors strive to do more with less. Infinite Jest was longer, A Death in the Family was longer. Tobias Wolff has said something to the effect that his novel Old School took so long to write because he was trying to make it shorter. And sometimes length isn’t the issue. Two novelists I know have had the same experience with revision. Both wrote novels narrated in the third person. Both gave the books to their first readers. Both first readers said: terrific, but shouldn’t this be in the first person? Both writers were appalled, but agreed. Both revised.

How the novelist must envy the musician. In music, one gets to call drafts “takes.” One can change tack dramatically on a song in a matter of minutes. I got my hands on a 2005 session of Bob Dylan’s for a song called “Tell Ol’ Bill.” In its release version on the current Tell Tale Signs, the song has a groove so deep it feels graven. But on the first five takes of the song on the sessions disc, while it’s a groovy little number, it isn’t… alive.

Then, on the sixth take, at the beginning, Dylan, not liking what they’ve done with the song, says: “Maybe we should just change it all, totally: change the melody, change everything about it, put it in a minor key–I mean everything. Let’s see what happens if we keep the same form, though.” He starts singing. And there it is: suddenly there’s the version that got released. Same lyrics, same form, but so different as to be unrecognizable.

It’s impractical to ask the same of a novelist who’s worked for months to years on a slow groove of a book. Sometimes though, to keep a form one wants, everything else has to go.

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