Rewriting: Disturbing the Sentence

In the article, "Revising your writing again? Blame the Modernists: How self-editing became the first commandment of literature," Craig Fehrman writes an encapsulated essay about the history of rewriting, a review based on a new book, The Work of Revision by Hannah Sullivan.

The article includes how technology changes writing. Paper started out scarce and expensive. When a novel-length manuscript was written by hand, rewriting would have been time-consuming and tedious, and the paper wasted considered a lapse of luxury. Cheap paper provided new opportunities. The typewriter changed the culture as well; typing up a manuscript could give the writer distance from the work, provide a new view on the subject and sentences. Although the Modernists (Hemingway, for example, and Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates are mentioned, too) valued revision, not everyone was or is interested in revising.

The article also points out that we now write in "real time": that we create "living documents" that are constantly changing. Drafts ooze one into another and unless we save separate files, we have no record of the original impulse. It poses the possibilities that the original might be better than the rewrite and that rewriting can't always polish a prosaic piece into publishability.

The thought about writing in real time reminded me of a book I bought a year or two ago, How to Write by Gertrude Stein; her work feels immediate, in the moment, it does not seem to have a past or future. I originally found the book impenetrable. (It does not teach you how to write, it shows you how she writes.) Sometimes I sensed that the sentences made sense. Mostly I sensed sounds in the sentences. The book shows moments of thinking, jumping from thought to thought, then tying them back together with her own knot. It is not for the impatient reader. It's more like a shower of words and juxtapositions. Stein's style flows, stutters, and becomes distracted by whatever interests her. But after reading the preface and introduction by Patricia Meyerowitz and keeping the idea of revision in mind, I began again. I pressed on because I had a quest. My questions were: what were her feelings about revisions, did she follow her own rules, and did she revise? Some quotes began floating to the surface of clarity.

Do Not Disturb the Sentence
A sentence should be arbitrary it should not please be better. It should not be disturbed (26).
Let them tumble out as they come. That's what Stein's writing feels like, although through repetition of thoughts she made her work look like it was shaped, something I called previously Cubist writing. Keep writing from all angles until you find the whole shape. So, on first look, no, she would not rewrite. She would let the thoughts accumulate until they gathered meaning collectively.

On page 151 it comes again, "Leave a sentence alone when they end." And again on page 162, "Leave a sentence alone." 

At this point in the book you realize that what she is calling a sentence is different from what everyone else calls a sentence. She's using words, but in different ways than you do, as if she had her own code. This may not be helpful in one sense, but at least it blows your mind and allows you to experiment. GS on revision again:
A sentence need never to be arranged afterward. This is an example of a sentence that has been thought which is the same as if it has been has been bought. (178)
 (And yes "has been" does repeat.) As a justification for not revising, I think she is saying that the spontaneity is more akin to how we think, and for her thinking and writing are/should be the same, which appears again as "…there is no use in preparing for it" (169). At the same time, she could have been deceiving herself and not realizing she was thinking and revising before she put her pencil to paper. Perhaps how much rewriting you do depends upon how quickly you can organize your thoughts, consciously or not. Or perhaps she intentionally wanted the work to look like her thought process.

Did She Follow Her Own Rules? 
You can see the first page of manuscript from The Making of Americans on the Yale Library Beinecke Rare Book website and notice there is only one correction, from "broken out" to "broken over." In a manuscript for Tender Buttons (one of my favorite of her books for sounds and imagery), from the center of the poem "Roast Beef," same thing: one revision only. There are a few corrections on a typescript for Ida A Novel, but not many. Alice typed her manuscripts for her, so it is hard to know if the corrections are due to Alice's typing or Gertrude's rewriting. The typewriter, for her then, was not part of her revision process. For the most part, it seems, Stein let her sentences alone.

To Revise or Not To Revise?
In the Boston Globe article, Fehrman cites Ezra Pound's, "In a Station of the Metro," a two-line poem that started as a 30-line poem, but was revised until it became a polished gem that expressed the beauty that Pound was struggling with, buried under too many words. Revising worked for him.

But Hannah Sullivan isn't convinced that rewriting is always the answer. I think she means that rewriting isn't a cure for poor writing and shouldn't be thought of as one. Sometimes the work is not salvageable, the subject not interesting enough, or doesn't lead anywhere. This can happen to any writer. In that case, rewriting can work up to a point. But in general, I'm in favor of disturbing the sentence. I think one needs to balance the spontaneous flow and freshness of the work with precision and clarity, which can most often be achieved through rewriting. On the other hand, sometimes the first draft is full of clich├ęs that need to be overhauled. Rewriting gives the writer a chance to dig deeper.

I like learning about various writers' creative processes and understanding how our approaches change as new technologies make us see things differently. Some people say we may not be able to teach our students to write, but we can  teach our students to rewrite. An interesting thought. We also need to teach them how to begin.

You might like the 2010 Paul Simon music video, "Rewrite."
The lyrics are here.


Janel Gradowski said…
I've never thought about how technology has changed how writers write, especially concerning rewrites. I'll have to find a copy of the Stein book, just to get a different perspective.
Alisa said…
Gertrude Stein would definitely give you a different perspective. It is also sometimes incomprehensible. A few of my favorite quotes, though: "Forget grammar and think about potatoes" (109), and, "A sentence is drawers and drawers full of drawings" (144).