Thursday, January 10, 2008

When Editing Becomes Rewriting

First thing this morning I vowed that I would write 500 words for a magazine assignment before blogging or reading blogs or checking email - all of the normal and nearly irresistible ways of avoiding work.

So much for willpower.

I had been planning to wait until tonight to blog about the piece on Raymond Carver in the December 24 issue of The New Yorker. But then a tiny crack in the discipline dam quickly gave way to complete collapse. I gave in and listened to a short NPR segment on Caver's relationship with Gordon Lish, his longtime editor at Esquire and Knoph. Now, my creative juices are trickling in that direction, and I won't be able to redirect the flow to a more responsible course until I've posted a few thoughts on Carver, Lish, and the writer-editor relationship.

I discovered Raymond Carver back the early nineties as I was beginning to read beyond hook and bullet and nature writing. I started with his short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and went on to read nearly everything he published.

Much has been made of his minimalism, but what struck me was the clarity and elegance of his simple language, and, even more important, the sense that here was man of decency, a man who had struggled and suffered, one who'd known failure and could understand and forgive weakness in others. Reading his stories about failed relationships, alcoholism, murder, and betrayal, I felt the gentleness with which he handled his struggling, absurd, often miserable characters. Here was an adult, a writer who could be trusted.

At times, though, his stories frustrated me, not because he failed to meet my expectations - a writer works under no such obligation - but because I felt that something was missing or that Carver was telling me something through omission, but I was too thick to get it. Some of Hemingway's stories leave me with the same feeling, as if he wrote much more, then went back and excised it. Of course critics and scholars tell us what we should infer from those silences, but I'm often left thinking, "Well, maybe."

Hemingway famously said that when chiseling stories, a writer should go back and "take out all of the good parts." I don't think he meant that at all. His related statement - apocryphal or not - that a writer should be prepared to "kill his babies" makes more sense to me. In other words, beware of your own "best" writing; it can get in the way of your story.

According to The New Yorker, Carver wasn't as severely minimalist at mid-career as critics have long believed. Manuscript drafts and correspondence show that Lish cut some of Carver's stories by more than 50 percent and literally rewrote the ending of the title story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." Furthermore, correspondence between the two make clear the anguish the heavy editing caused the newly sober and fragile Carver.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love met with critical acclaim, making a literary star of Carver and complicating his relationship with his old friend Lish. As he gained confidence, Carver began to stand his ground. His later, lusher stories earned high praise from critics, putting to rest (in my opinion) the notion that Lish propped him up.

These revelations jolted me because "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" has stayed with me all these years because it moved me and at the same time left me with the feeling that Carver was holding something back. Turns out, Lish held it back.

Carver's original (or very lightly edited) version of the story, under its original title, "Beginners," follows the article and selected correspondence.

Did Lish go too far? I think so.

Is the story better of worse for Lish's editing? I'm still thinking about it.

If you think that famous literary writers work with complete confidence, read a few of Raymond Carver's letters to his friend and editor.

And if you haven't done so, read Raymond Carver.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Carry the Damn Camera

Back in the early nineties, when I started writing for the bird hunting and gun dog magazines, I had to provide photos with my manuscripts - for no extra pay, of course. On every hunting trip, I tried my buddies' patience by holding things up to photograph a dog on point or by bringing everything to a halt if the light was especially good. I have never been a good photographer, but a bunch of my simple shots saw the light of publication. But constantly worrying about photos took some of the fun out of hunting. I vowed that if I ever wrote for magazines that work only with real photographers, I'd leave the camera at home and concentrate on my hunting and any stories that might come out of it.

Well, I'm happy to say that I haven't submitted a photo in a dozen years or so. My stories seem to read better accompanied by photos by Wyman Meinzer, Russell Graves, and other pros.

But these days, of course, digital photography is easy and fun, and the results are immediate. And of course I like to include photos with my blog posts.

Still, I'm usually too lazy to carry a camera.

I paid for that laziness earlier today.

I took Cate to a creek bottom a few miles from home. It's within the city limits, so I can't carry a shotgun, but the place is covered with huge pecan trees, several kinds of oak, hackberry, and Osage orange, and it's loaded with fox squirrels.

Cate is really starting to tree. She's been treeing and barking at squirrels that she can see for several weeks, but lately, she's starting to tree by scent only, and she's learning to follow timbering squirrels through the treetops, barking every breath - a nice, clear, chop, almost as deep and smooth as a coonhound's.

Cate struck about 50 yards away amid a stand of huge post oaks. For several seconds, I couldn't find her even though she was raising hell. Then I heard scratching up in the trees - a squirrel running up a trunk or branch, I assumed.

No, Cate running up the trunk of a big oak that had fallen against another old giant.

There she was, my seven month-old pup, eight feet off the ground, standing on the trunk of a leaning tree and reared up on the tree that held the squirrel, barking her head off.

And I had no camera and no gun. Nothing to do but cheer her on.

Directly, the squirrel timbered. Cate ran back down the leaning trunk, following the squirrel by sight. She lost it after a few minutes, but had that been a real hunting situation, that squirrel would have gone in the bag.

Next time, I'm carrying the damn camera.