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Johnny Damm

Murdering Your Darlings: Ann Beattie & Raymond Chandler

From “The Curtain” (1936): The air steamed. The walls and ceiling of the glass house dripped. In the half light enormous tropical plants spread their blooms and branches all over the place, and the smell of them was almost as overpowering as the smell of boiling alcohol. From The Big Sleep (1939) The air was thick, wet, steamy and laced with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants ...

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Johnny Damm

Murdering Your Darlings: Writers’ Revisions

With the dubious legacy of the Carver/Lish revisions, I find it calming to return to Fitzgerald’s “boats”: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. And I think of this as not only a metaphor for Fitzgerald’s characters but for the revision process itself.  As writers, the temptation is to see a well written sentence, passage, or chapter as done, as a finished product in of itself.  Our natural inclination towards self-satisfaction—we’re artists, after all—pushes us away from the revision that the story itself demands, but if we are aware of this and keep precision firmly ...

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Johnny Damm

Murdering Your Darlings: Writers’ Revisions

For me, this week’s example is particularly fascinating and adds a useful note of ambiguity to our discussion of revision. Unquestionably, Raymond Carver has exerted an outsized influence on the short story as we know it.  The funny thing, it turns out, is that the primary points of this influence—his minimalism, the use of white space, how the stories often seem to just cut off, etc.—turn out to have been a product of revision, but not his revision.  The Raymond Carver that we know is, in a very real way, a creation—or at least, a co-creation—of his editor, Gordon Lish. This is ...

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Johnny Damm

Murdering Your Darlings: Writers’ Revisions

I’ve always found “polishing” to be too elegant a description for the act of a writer’s revision, which can often feel more than a little violent. Over the course of a semester, my students in a fiction workshop simplified the famous, but also quite elegant, “Murder Your Darlings” to a more blunt “Kill Your Babies.” This, I think, adequately captures how it can feel for a writer when she is numbly staring down at page after page of words that look done, that even read as done, but godammit, they’re not done. The writer somehow knows this, even if she ...

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Johnny Damm

Murdering Your Darlings: Writers’ Revisions

Teddy Roosevelt once referred to Henry James as “a little emasculated mass of inanity.” Virginia Woolf was less personal, but perhaps more damning:  “I am reading Henry James…and feel myself as one entombed in a block of smooth amber.” H.G. Wells offered a full-on attack, referring to a Jamesian novel as being “like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string. . . .” These descriptions don’t, however, take into ...

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Johnny Damm

Murdering Your Darlings: Writers’ Revisions

This week’s example comes from the last chapter of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, as cited by William R. MacNaughton in Papers on Language & Literature.  The book follows the character of Undine, who marries three different men and has one fairly neglected child.  The book is firmly about this fascinating woman, but significantly, the last chapter begins with the child, a nine-year-old named Paul.  An old servant has met Paul for the first time in several years, and in discussion with him, the servant realizes that the boy appears not to remember his father, so she asks ...

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Record-Rama and the Sordid Stories of Our Stuff: Part 2 of 2

In at least one way, Paul Mawhinney is undoubtedly right: our move away from viewing music recordings as physical objects has resulted in tangible losses. The first of these, the fall of the album as visual artifact, has been lamented at least since the rise of the eight-track. The association between the auditory and visual senses, which hit full stride with the beautiful LP gatefold covers of the sixties and seventies, has been nearly completely severed by the rise of digital downloading and mp3 players, and arguably the album cover is now dead. My first album purchases were cassettes, so this type of sensory interplay has been dulled for me from the beginning, but still, I can feel the pull of the perfect cover.

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