Murdering Your Darlings: Writers’ Revisions

Johnny Damm

Edith Wharton

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 him about it.  In the original manuscript, Paul answers:

“He died a long long time ago, didn’t he?”

Not bad, right?  We understand that the child does not, in fact, remember his father, which carries some weight.  But in the published novel, Wharton makes a tiny change:

“That one died a long long time ago, didn’t he?”

Ouch!  This exchange—“That one” for “He”—changes the entire tone, as well as more precisely demonstrates that the child sees his actual father, his biological father, as just one in a succession of fathers, and this clearly tells us something not only about Paul, but about Undine, all delivered with the edge of satiric and slightly moralistic bite essential to making The Custom of the Country the novel that it is.

As a bonus, here’s one more example:

Version One:  “…& as Paul came in he stopped short.”

Version Two: “…and as Paul came in his heart gave a joyful bound.”

Published Version: “…and Paul’s heart gave a wondering bound.”

henry james

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 consideration how, despite an inclination towards endless sentences and semi-colons, James’ work can also be remarkably precise.  As cited in David Madden’s Revising Fiction, this week’s brief example comes from The Portrait of a Lady:

Lilly knew nothing about Boston; her imagination was confined within the limits of Manhattan.

A good line that effectively (and concisely!) offers a snapshot of the character.  But for a later edition, Henry James made it better.  This is the revision:

Lilly knew nothing about Boston; her imagination was all bounded on the east by Madison Avenue.

All of the qualities of the original line remain, but by making the confines of “her imagination” more geographically specific, James manages to make it much funnier—a quality even H.G. Wells could have appreciated.

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 has no idea what to do next. This can understandably lend itself to certain murderous feelings.

At this moment, the writer’s process takes on an enormous complexity, and despite the best efforts of workshop leaders and creative writing textbook authors, it is unable to be easily simplified into specific rules. To get a grasp of the type of precision required of the writer during revision, I like to look at this line:

So we beat on, a boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Anybody recognize this? It’s the last sentence from The Great Gatsby, and on first read, it appears to be a perfect line. Except that it isn’t. This is a perfect line:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Ridiculously minor revision, right, “a boat” becomes “boats”? Singular to plural. But it is only this second version, as it appeared in the published book, that accurately captures the condition of The Great Gatsby’s characters. Think about the metaphor. If they are one boat, that suggests some sort of unified condition. If they are boats plural, then Nick, Daisy, Jordan, and Gatsby are isolated. By extension, we—the readers, Americans, human beings in general—are all isolated, and that is precisely the condition that Fitzgerald conveys in his novel. That is The Great Gatsby.

Let’s examine one more short passage from the book, this time dealing with just Daisy:

“Listen, Nick,” she broke out suddenly, “did you ever hear what I said when my child was born?”

“No, Daisy.”

“Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling as if I’d been raped by a company of soldiers and left out in a field to die.”

I actually really like this last line of dialogue. Daisy’s choice of description for giving birth quite efficiently offers a brash snapshot of character: one line and the reader has a pretty clear sense of her. There’s just one problem: the character revealed by the dialogue is not The Great Gatsby’s Daisy.

Perhaps she’s in there under the surface somewhere, but within the novel’s surface itself—how Nick sees Daisy, how Gatsby sees Daisy, how Nick sees Daisy through how Gatsby sees Daisy—this Daisy is way too sharp. She’s lost a bit of the fuzziness, the abstraction crucial for the role she ultimately plays in the book as a character revealed through glimpses. So it appears in the published book like this:

Well she was less than hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling…I said: “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

Still offers quite a hit of character, right? Tonally more subtle but still pretty damn sharp. Daisy, however, remains less defined, more an open question. The statement about what “a girl can be in this world” hints at greater depths, but we don’t actually know this woman, which is exactly what the novel needs.

This, by the way, is not how we often think of the process of revision. Usually, we think of revision as making qualities less abstract, more clearly defined, but this example suggests something more complex: that the real trick is in discovering precisely what the story demands—even, as in this case, if it means a slight pull back in focus to deliver it.

And that, perhaps, is as accurate a description of revision as anything else, but as we shall see with other authors, a story can have an absurd variety of needs.

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.”

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 in mind, we “beat on” anyway.

 

Postscript:

This, by the way, is precisely why I find the physical records of a writer’s work to be so essential for any examination of the craft, and I worry that, with the move away from paper, future writers may not have the type of notes and distinct drafts that lend themselves to study.

So I’d like to offer this up for discussion in the comment boards.  Can you offer an example from your favorite writers that can help illustrate the mysterious, meticulous, ridiculous nature of revision?  If you are a writer, how much of a record of your process do you keep?

I believe this is a discussion worth having.  How about you?

About the Work

Johnny Damm

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

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