“I write a book or short story three times. Once to understand her, the second time to improve her prose, and a third to compel her to say what it still must say.” – Malamud.
I recently came across this quote and was impressed by Malamud’s dedication to the process of revision. (I was also charmed by his use of ”her” for his book , though why did he surrender to ”it”?) When we read a first-rate book or see a wonderful painting, it may look effortless, as if it simply fell into place. That’s because the creative “blood stains”don’t show. Having just read Malamud’s “The Assistant” I wish there were a way to read his earlier versions of this beautiful book to see how it changed.
I was half way through writing my latest book,” Ten Women of Valor,” when I realized I had the wrong approach. I’d been describing these Biblical heroines, but not getting deeply enough into their feelings of passion, anger, envy, and so on. This realization was one of the occasions when my Muse decided to lend a helping hand, for one sleepless night I heard her ask, “Why don’t you let these women speak for themselves?” That translated into letting each woman tell her story in her own voice. Technically, this meant using first person instead of third. My elation at finding the key into the book was diluted when I realized I’d have to delete everything I’d written up to that point. It reminds me of something Canadian writer Margaret Atwood said. Describing the moment when she knew the 100 pages she had written for her new novel weren’t right and she’d have to start over, she called it “Tylenol time.”
There’s a belief – myth would be the more apt word – that Mozart was such a genius his marvelous compositions came readymade. I will never forget the time a friend and I went to an exhibition of Mozart ‘s works at the Morgan Library in New York. Standing before the glass case, my friend cried out in surprise – and delight -–“He did revise!” What we were looking at were Mozart’s numerous hand-written notations on the pages.
If Mozart and Malamud, to alliteratively mention only two artists, had the humility to revise their work, what keeps many of us from making enough changes? Why do we often feel it “isn’t worth the trouble”? Or is it too hard to get an objective view? (This is true in life as well as art, but that’s another story – or blog.)
I knew a man who aspired to be a writer and sent his manuscript to an agent. Weeks later I got a phone call from this man, complaining that the agent had suggested a number of changes. When I tried to point out that revising is the name of the writing game, he declared, ”I don’t rewrite!” He also didn’t get published.
In my writers’ group we welcome revisions, even if it’s the tenth – or hundredth – one. It’s thrilling to see how a story grows from first draft to last. But what is “last”? When does revising become such an addiction you can’t let go of your book or story? I confess to being guilty of this. So whenever I attend an author’s talk, I always ask the same question: “How do you know when it’s finished?” One famous writer admitted, “When I can’t stand looking at it anymore.” Of course, that could also be an excuse for stopping. Actually the best answer was from an author who said, “You have to ask yourself, am I making this better – or just different?”
I envy Malamud for knowing he needed exactly three revisions!
Books: “Widow’s Walk” – available through iUniverse.com; “Turning Toward Tomorrow” -xLibris Corp., “Ten Women of Valor”- CreateSpace.com and Amazon.com. Also Amazon Kindle.