Links: 6 July 2013

1. A cool idea — DIY art, artists writing instructions on how to make art. Original here.

2. How reality TV gets written.

3. A Whitman poem segment about animals. I especially like:

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God:
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning

This reminds me of one of the best relaxation ideas I’ve ever had: to follow my dog in its daily schedule, to nap when she napped, to exercise when she exercised. It reminded me to let go of concerns like the ones Whitman named.

4. A book about literary revision. This article points out that writing process is as susceptible to fashion as anything else:

It’s easy to assume that history’s greatest authors have been history’s greatest revisers. But that wasn’t always how it worked. Until about a century ago, according to various biographers and critics, literature proceeded through handwritten manuscripts that underwent mostly small-scale revisions.

Then something changed. In a new book, “The Work of Revision,” Hannah Sullivan, an English professor at Oxford University, argues that revision as we now understand it—where authors, before they publish anything, will spend weeks tearing it down and putting it back together again—is a creation of the 20th century.

The article contrasts the 20th Cent. urge to rewrite vs. earlier-centuries’ milder changes:

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. … All of these factors suggest that revision was not something that happened on the page. Indeed, during the 19th century, the Romantics made resisting revision a virtue. The best literature, they believed, flowed from spontaneous and organic creative acts. “I am like the tyger (in poesy),” Lord Byron wrote in a letter. “If I miss my first spring—I go growling back to my Jungle. There is no second. I can’t correct.” …  But something would soon change, with writers like Hemingway and Eliot insisting on not just a second chance, but a third, fourth, and fifth. [“The Work of Revision” author Hannah] Sullivan argues that this change was driven in part by a new philosophy of what made good writing. The Modernists wanted to produce avant-garde literature—literature that was less spontaneous and enthusiastic than it was startling and enigmatic.

But, as the article notes, certain other writers This article also contains an anecdote about Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:

One day in 1912, he got off a train in Paris and, as he wrote in a later essay, “saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another.” Pound went right to work, like a Romantic poet might have, crafting a poem to capture this “sudden emotion.” When Pound finished his 30-line poem, however, he found he hated it. Six months later, he tried again, producing a poem half the length and hating it, too. Finally, after another six months, he completed the final, two-line poem: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals, on a wet, black bough.” It was spare, dense, and lyrical.

And here for me is the real question: What makes this poem good? I mean, how do we really know that this poem is actually any better in two lines than it was in 15 or 30 lines? It’s interesting as it is, but I don’t know that I find it compelling — I don’t know that it’s a poem that has any feeling for me. I have my students memorize it as an example of what can be done in a few words, but I don’t know that I actually like this poem.

But I do like that this article reminds me that the writing process that is so widely accepted and taught is not, of course, the only means by which to write. Learning to trust my spontaneous words, which often seem my truest voice, and learning not to over-edit my work into narrow limits (as I did when a journalist) helped me become more confident as a writer, and helped me to see value in my less-typical writing.

3 responses to “Links: 6 July 2013

  1. Marshall Dwyer

    This revision thing is very interesting to me, but as you might expect of a fiction writer, I remain dubious. It seems that most writers before the 20th century had means (seems to me, anyway — perhaps this unscientific POV is wrong headed). I always took this as necessity for having the luxury to write — or time — but if that’s true, wouldn’t they also have the materials? Maybe revising wasn’t like today, wherein an editor and publisher engage in a back-and-forth, more communal editorial process, but my assumption is these writers of means wrote and rewrote until they were sufficiently pleased with it to see it in print… (hence rather than less editing, it was simply more personal editing?)

    Maybe this is just me refusing to part with long held bias, though I do know our history of the theater from Elizabethan England, for example, sees great deals of revision occurring on the documents that tumble down through so many hands to us over time…

    • Interesting point. I remember reading in a fiction how-to that Flaubert wrote slowly (seeking “le mot juste”) but his first drafts were almost what went into print. Presumably other writers did have more drafts? Maybe this question of revision is more about personal choice/tendency/process?

    • Later thoughts: I have a concern with all revision. I mean, my fear for my own work is that if I start writing for other people, I’ll end up following the familiar (overplayed) forms — I’m interested in things that are maybe rough but are not overly revised. That said, it’s also hard for me to type up my handwritings without sometimes changing things, whether small or big changes.

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