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.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2015

A Sage in Harlem

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Man Stopped

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Spy Who Fired Me

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Giving Up the Ghost

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Invisible and Insidious

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
No Slant to the Sun·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“She didn’t speak the language, beyond “¿cuánto?” and “demasiado,” but that didn’t stop her. She wanted things. She wanted life, new experiences, a change in the routine.”
Photograph © Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos
[Browsings]
Burn After Reading·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

William Powell published The Anarchist Cookbook in 1971. He spent the next four decades fighting to take it out of print.
“The book has hovered like an awkward question on the rim of my consciousness for years.”
© JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis
Article
The Fourth Branch·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Both the United States and the Soviet Union saw student politics as a proxy battleground for their rivalry.”
Photograph © Gerald R. Brimacombe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Article
The Spy Who Fired Me·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In industry after industry, this data collection is part of an expensive, high-tech effort to squeeze every last drop of productivity from corporate workforces.”
Illustration by John Ritter
Article
Invisible and Insidious·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly.”
Photograph © 2011 Massimo Mastrorillo and Donald Weber/VII

Number of U.S. congressional districts in which trade with China has produced more jobs than it has cost:

1

Young bilingual children who learned one language first are likelier than monolingual children and bilingual children who learned languages simultaneously to say that a dog adopted by owls will hoot.

An Oklahoma legislative committee voted to defund Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, accusing the curriculum of portraying the United States as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Driving Mr. Albert

By

He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Subscribe Today