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:

Conversation October 2, 2015, 8:26 am

Permission to Speak Frankly

“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”

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

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2016

Land of Sod

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Only an Apocalypse Can Save Us Now

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Watchmen

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Acceptable Losses

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Home

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tennis Lessons

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
 
Andrew Cockburn on the Saudi slaughter in Yemen, Alan Jacobs on the disappearance of Christian intellectuals, a forum on a post-Obama foreign policy, a story by Alice McDermott, and more
Artwork by Ingo Günther
Article
Land of Sod·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hard science, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.

At the time, Chomsky was still finishing his doctoral dissertation for Penn, where he had completed his graduate-school course work. But at bedtime and in his heart of hearts he was living in Boston as a junior member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, and creating a Harvard-level name for himself.

Photograph by Mike Slack
Article
The Watchmen·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hard science, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.

At the time, Chomsky was still finishing his doctoral dissertation for Penn, where he had completed his graduate-school course work. But at bedtime and in his heart of hearts he was living in Boston as a junior member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, and creating a Harvard-level name for himself.

Illustration by John Ritter
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News
Article
Acceptable Losses·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hard science, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.

At the time, Chomsky was still finishing his doctoral dissertation for Penn, where he had completed his graduate-school course work. But at bedtime and in his heart of hearts he was living in Boston as a junior member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, and creating a Harvard-level name for himself.

Photograph by Alex Potter

Chances that college students select as “most desirable‚” the same face chosen by the chickens:

49 in 50

Most of the United States’ 36,000 yearly bunk-bed injuries involve male victims.

In Italy, a legislator called for parents who feed their children vegan diets to be sentenced to up to six years in prison, and in Sweden, a woman attempted to vindicate her theft of six pairs of underwear by claiming she had severe diarrhea.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today