Thursday, August 23, 2012

Rewriting: A Few Thoughts

The Autobiography of Mark Twain
A copy of Mark Twain’s autobiography fell into my lap this summer. I’ve read it off and on since, hitting page 300 just today. In chapter 53 (this is the Charles Neider-edited version of 1959), Twain discusses works in progress and works abandoned. He also talks there about rewriting.

This past summer, I too (humble me) rewrote a novel that I originally wrote some fifteen years ago. This is unusual for me. Everything else that I wrote in that period has long since gone the way of all old computer files and notebooks. But this story I have rewritten now three or four times. I keep trying to get it write. (Freudian slip? Let it stand.)

My new tack, this time, was the mantra, “I’m starting to get bored here.” Wherever the plot dragged along, slogged down, got needlessly embroiled, I cut to the good thing (the interesting thing) that should happen next (I knew this, because I had written the story before, you see). I leaped over earlier drafts’ complications and hindrances – and never looked back.

One thing that helped – trust me, one needs “help” with such a thing – was the realization that I could just save a new version of the file whenever I hit that point. Another was that I didn’t try to edit the existing work, but to rewrite from a blank sheet, with the old draft on the desk at my elbow. I sometimes typed as much as a page or two without changing a lot. I called this rewrite “New Try,” and I got up to #7 by the end.

Back to Twain: “In Rouen in ’93 I destroyed $15,000 worth of manuscript, and in Paris in the beginning of ’94 I destroyed $10,000 worth—I mean, estimated as magazine stuff. I was afraid to keep those piles of manuscript on hand lest I be tempted to sell them …”

And here’s another: “In the story of Joan of Arc I made six wrong starts and each time that I offered the result to Mrs. Clemens she responded with the same deadly criticism—silence…. When at last I found the right form I recognized at once that it was the right one and I knew what she would say.”

He says a little later: “To start right is certainly an essential…. Twenty-five or thirty years ago I began a story… Four times I started it in the wrong way and it wouldn’t go. Three times I discovered my mistake after writing about a hundred pages. I discovered it the fourth time when I had written four hundred pages—then I gave it up and put the whole thing in the fire.”

Compared to Twain, I know, I have been weak. And that’s not good. But his courage inspires me. And, as he says, that's what heroes are for: "Our heroes are the men who do things which we recognize with regret and sometimes with a secret shame that we cannot do. We find not much in ourselves to admire, we are always privately wanting to be like somebody else."

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