Murdering Your Darlings: Writers’ Revisions

Johnny Damm

raymond carver

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 from a story entitled “Beginners,” as it appeared in The New Yorker in 2007:

Terri said the man she lived with before she lived with Herb loved her so much he tried to kill her. Herb laughed after she said this. He made a face. Terri looked at him. Then she said, “He beat me up one night, the last night we lived together. He dragged me around the living room by my ankles, all the while saying, ‘I love you, don’t you see? I love you, you bitch.’ He went on dragging me around the living room, my head knocking on things.” She looked around the table at us and then looked at her hands on her glass. “What do you do with love like that?” she said. She was a bone-thin woman with a pretty face, dark eyes, and brown hair that hung down her back. She liked necklaces made of turquoise, and long pendant earrings. She was fifteen years younger than Herb, had suffered periods of anorexia, and during the late sixties, before she’d gone to nursing school, had been a dropout, a “street person,” as she put it. Herb sometimes called her, affectionately, his hippie.

“My God, don’t be silly. That’s not love, and you know it,” Herb said. “I don’t know what you’d call it—madness is what I’d call it—but it’s sure as hell not love.”

And this is from the revision, a short story Gordon Lish entitled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” as originally published in 1981:

Terri said the man she lived with before she lived with Mel loved her so much he tried to kill her.  Then Terri said, “He beat me up one night.  He dragged me around the living room by my ankles.  He kept saying, ‘I love you, I love you, you bitch.’ He went on dragging me around the living room.  My head kept knocking on things.”  Terri looked around the table.  “What do you do with love like that?”

She was a bone-thin woman with a pretty face, dark eyes, and brown hair that hung down her back.  She liked necklaces made of turquoise, and long pendant earrings.

“My God, don’t be silly.  That’s not love, and you know it,” Mel said.  “I don’t know what you’d call it, but I sure know you wouldn’t call it love.”

This clearly results in a different rhythm and certainly creates what came to be known as the characteristic Carver minimalism.  You might have noticed that Lish even changed names, and most dramatically, he chopped off at least the last three pages or so of the whole piece.  Apparently much of Carver’s work received similar treatment.

Now, as to the ultimate ethics of this and the question it raises about who exactly readers should consider the real Raymond Carver, that’s a discussion for another place.  What’s most mind-blowing to me, however, is that both versions of this particular story currently appear in the Library of America’s Raymond Carver: Collected Stories.

So for now, there is no definitive version!  This reminds me of controversies regarding a “Director’s Cut” appearing years after a film’s original release: a new version complicates our ideas about restoration and, frankly, revision itself.

What does this then offer us as an example?  Your guess is as good as mine, but it’s certainly a question worth pondering.

Let’s conclude with the same passage in a third version, as ingeniously presented by The New Yorker in a way that illustrates Lish’s revisions (the boldface signifies an addition):

Terri said the man she lived with before she lived with Mel Herb loved her so much he tried to kill her. Herb laughed after she said this. He made a face. Terri looked at him. Then Terri she said, “He beat me up one night, the last night we lived together. He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept saying, , all the while saying, ‘I love you, don’t you see? I love you, you bitch.’ He went on dragging me around the living room. My , my head kept knocking on things.” TerriShe looked around the table at us and then looked at her hands on her glass. “What do you do with love like that?” she said. She was a bone-thin woman with a pretty face, dark eyes, and brown hair that hung down her back. She liked necklaces made of turquoise, and long pendant earrings. She was fifteen years younger than Herb, had suffered periods of anorexia, and during the late sixties, before she’d gone to nursing school, had been a dropout, a “street person” as she put it. Herb sometimes called her, affectionately, his hippie.

“My God, don’t be silly. That’s not love, and you know it,” Mel Herb said. “I don’t know what you’d call it, —madness is what I’d call it—but I sure know you wouldn’t call it it’s sure as hell not love.”

“Say what you want to, but I know it was he loved me,” Terri said. “I know he did. It may sound crazy to you, but it’s true just the same. People are different, Mel Herb. Sure, sometimes he may have acted crazy. Okay. But he loved me. In his own way, maybe, but he loved me. There was was love there, Mel Herb. Don’t say there wasn’t deny me that.”

About the Work

Johnny Damm

Johnny Damm is the editor-in-chief of A Bad Penny Review.

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