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.


Matt Mullenix said...

Excellent reading! I'm glad you have such poor willpower. :-)

Henry Chappell said...

Thanks Matt! I'm sure glad at least one person appreciates my lousy work habits.

George said...

Make that two. Enjoyed it!

Steve Bodio said...

I may be an idiot, but this kind of editorial interference (to me) is a crime. I'd often rather read the digresssions of writers I love.

Of course I am hardly a minimalist.

And yes, Henry, I'm sure I edited you a bit back when. But the NYRKR piece horrified me.

Henry Chappell said...

Thanks, George! It's good to hear from you.

Steve, I agree with you. Completely changing a story's ending? That's not editing. That's rewriting.

Apologies to all for the tardy reply. I've been in the boonies the past few days - and I'm happy to say that I'll be heading back in a few minutes!

Kathryn and Ari said...

Wow--Your post really resonates with me. Is blogging writing? I try to tell myself it is, but that's mostly cheap consolation for a book chapter that's not being written. Is it editing? Definitely not. But it's sooooooo seductive. Chandler's a great voice for just about everything.

Matt Mullenix said...


OK it has been a month now since your last post. Cowboy up and get some words out.



Henry Chappell said...

As always, Matt, thanks for the nudge. I'm afraid I need one from time to time. I have a long list of future entries. I just need to work up the discipline and energy to write them.