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There is power in a first draft, but Hemingway was mostly right: first drafts are shit. Maybe it’s not that way for everyone, but for me and what seems like many people, first drafts are a start; you find your story in revision.

Revision is both the most gratifying and the most draining part of my writing life. It exhausts while it challenges, engaging my aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities simultaneously, my conscious and subconscious minds, and it leaves me so worn out that it I no longer distinguish between the excitement of constantly thinking about and laboring over an essay, and the frustration of it. Revision is so essential that if I had to choose one line to describe the writing process, it would be: “writing is revision.” Maybe that’s why I love poet Robert Hass’s quote so much: “It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.” Exhausting or not, it still beats working in a cubicle.

Some people would disagree with the idea that writing is revision. There’s a popular notion that art is about inspiration, and the challenge of the artist is to capture a spontaneous outpouring as it happens, without spilling any of that molten magic while it’s hot. I don’t know where this idea came from. Maybe it stems from the human tendency to relax rather than work; maybe it’s as ancient as the Greeks. What I do know is that the idea can encourage laziness. By presenting the core mechanisms of creation as something extemporaneous rather than labor-intensive, revision comes to resemble a kind of ruination, a process of tinkering that dilutes the original potency of the spontaneous composition. The message is: “the less you mess with it the better.” I can’t speak for all disciplines, but for essay writers, I think that idea is damaging. When essayists do less, their essays contain less. Even the term “discipline” implies labor, practice.

The essays I like to read and try to write don’t spring to life as the proverbial lightning bolt delivered by magic or the gods. They accrue, developed through protracted effort to build, shape and layer. In tea terms: revision is the process of steeping to develop character. Those who resist it on the grounds that it lessens the raw life force of revelation not only fall prey to a clichéd, romantic notion of writing (the frenzied poet, scribbling fast enough to capture the words as they come), they often fail to fully tap all the meaning and power that their subjects and they as writers contain. Maybe that sounds smug, but in my experience, more work = better essay. For me, telling a story isn’t enough. Instead of an awesome anecdote, I want meaning, nuance, theme, dazzling sentences, interesting narrative architecture, little if any of which arrives when you first sit down to tap computer keys. If we could speak sentence as incredible as the ones we write, then writing would just be the act of transcribing words spoken into a digital recorder. I can’t think of any narrative nonfiction that I’ve read that resulted from that. Can Denis Johnson do that? Or Barry Hannah? Among his many accomplishments, Kerouac did us a disservice by making us think that writing was only about filling a scroll with speedy first takes. Maybe some writers think otherwise while the Adderall still has a grip on them.

We can learn a lot about revision from first impressions. People say you only get one chance to make one. That’s true, and sometimes you meet someone and immediately know, “Blowhard, don’t trust him,” or “Perv.” I always trust my gut. I also know that sometimes we misread people, so it’s wise to keep that first impression open to some amount of modification and allow in new information from further interactions. Meaning, as we get to know people, we broaden our initial perceptions and allow them to develop depth, even when depth contains the sort of contradictory information that is central to human nature. This is how revision operates.

I might think I know what an essay is about when I start writing it, but I don’t really know. Oh, I think, this is about Googie architecture in my home town, or, This is about this one Miles Davis song where Miles pissed off Red Garland and had to play piano on the recording after Red stormed out of the studio. But that’s just one thread of the story, often the surface-level subject, what you might call the “ostensible subject,” which functions as a window into other component stories. Those other stories often reveal the essay’s theme: loss, regret, longing, failed hopes. They can also be the ones that readers connect to on an emotional or psychological level. More often, they’re the ones that address the question of meaning, or at least tries to chase meaning down. Ok, Googie, but what does it mean? In essays, meaning and theme are vital. I have yet to start an essay with either of them in mind. I find them through revision.

Revision takes me past my initial idea of what the essay is about. Once there, I explore the many facets of my story by going over and over and over it, plunging its depths. Ooh, what’s this here? And: Hey, that’s interesting. Never noticed that before, and I check it out. You see connections, see parallels, symbols, tangents and stories-within-stories. Revision is the playground where you can let your mind run free and discover not just things, but the things that are crucial to a literary essay. Instead of relaying information, and instead of just telling a compelling anecdote to get laughs or shock or entertain, spending time tinkering allows you to let go of narrative and your preconceptions long enough to see what it all really means. Which is to say, first impressions are important, but the more compelling portrait is a broader portrait, and that mostly emerges from revision.

To do this, you have to humble yourself: accept that you don’t know as much as you think you do, or as much as you would like to. If you explore your subject deeply enough, you’ll end up knowing a lot more than when you started. Readers will, too. That’s half of the fun. In the finished piece, your narrative voice might be confident, projecting the strength that assures readers that you’re taking them somewhere worthwhile and that you’re a knowledgeable, reliable guide. To get there, you have to stand before your subject and acknowledge your limits. You start out writing about X and Y, and you end up writing about who knows what. Without getting all New Agey, it’s the same thing we do when looking up at the full moon while camping and feeling like an inconsequential speck of dust on a rock in the vastness of space: there is so much we don’t know. I like to do the same with the story itself: whatever story I start with, I know that the bulk remains to be discovered. And so I revise.

To revise, you also have to be patient. You’re not going to finish that essay as quickly as you’d like. You might not finish it before your favorite lit mag’s reading period closes. You might not even finish it this summer. Good stuff takes time. That’s why barbecue cooked for a day over tended coals in a pit tastes a billion times better than that stuff people cook for a few hours over wood chips in a metal smoker. Go eat some ramen at Daikokuya in Los Angeles. You’re not going to tell the cooks that simmering their perfect porky broth for sixty hours was overkill.

I wish I had a system for revision. Granted, systems can be constraining and snuff out innovation, but they can also produce what scientists would call “reproducible results.” My only system is: drink tea, eat chocolate, and heed Harry Crews’ advice about keeping “your ass in the chair.” Sometimes I also chew on unlit cigarillos. I used to smoke and think I like the trace nicotine. Mostly it’s that, in lieu of specific revision strategies, Irely on that obsessive tea/chocolate/chewing nonsense to help me concentrate and keep me grounded during what is an inherently imprecise, ethereal, unscientific process.

            In other words, I’m flailing.I drink tea and follow my gut. For all the formalities and “craft” stuff that I know, intuition is my guide. My chart: tell a good story; be insightful, probing but entertaining. Not dancing-in-short-shorts entertaining. Not ah-isn’t-that-clever, but entertaining in that I want to give readers a narrative that takes them somewhere deep, on a journey both through a story described and a landscape of ideas. How I extract that from the ether, or shape it from raw experience, is something I figure out differently each time. In that sense, revising always feels like I’m doing it for the first time every time. In another sense, the more I do it, the easier (“easier”) it gets. Maybe I’m getting more in touch with my intuition. Maybe I’ve become more willing to follow my gut and not second guess myself, or I’m becoming more reckless and willing to play around with narrative architecture and follow whims down the ideological rabbit holes and stop being such a cautious baby. Maybe I’m better able to recognize what it is I’m looking for: themes, symbols, metaphor, narrative.

What I’m left with each morning, then, are the basics: the need to go back into an essay and follow my instincts. I rearrange. I add and subtract. I pee in the beaker and see how that changes the flavor and coloration. There’s no big checklist of things to do or look for. It’s just “find the meaning,” “reveal the themes,” “have fun,” “tell a compelling story” and “cut out everything else.” I like what Rick Moody once said about writing: he tries to cut out all the parts that he as a reader would skip.

Even though this phrase sounds like one plucked from a teen goth message board, the “best advice on cutting” I’ve ever received came in the form of an offhand comment at dinner. A few fellow grad students and I were discussing revision, how much we loved or loathed it, ways we went about it. “I keep everything I cut in a separate document,” one person said. “That way I can always go back and retrieve it if I want to.” Then she admitted: “I never do.” Instead of using that separate document as a reservoir for retrievable overflow, she used it as a dump disguised as a storage shed. Knowing that all that material was there emboldened her cuts. She trimmed more daringly and frequently because she knew that whatever she cut hadn’t been erased, it had simply been moved to another page. If you need to think of revising partly as a form of moving things aside rather than eliminating, go for it. “Erasing” sounds final in a way that “moving offsite” does not, even when it’s just semantics. Tell yourself whatever you need to tell yourself to get the superfluous stuff out and find the keepers, because the truth remains: the absence of unnecessary text makes rooms for newer, better stuff, and that leaner arrangement allows the vital text to come more clearly into view.

Even though I’ve largely taught myself to write just by practicing for years, I learned other things in grad school, too. I attended a low-residency MFA program, so I didn’t spend as much time in workshop as I did alone at my computer. One of the things that brief workshop experience taught me, though, was how to identify and articulate what I was going on in an essay, the so-called mechanics of it. Another lesson proved useful during revision: the ability to read my work as if it were written by someone else.

One teacher at my grad program said that, after decades of writing and teaching, he could no longer read anything without editing it. Even if he wasn’t making editorial marks on the page, he was editing in his mind: trimming sentences, rearranging passages, formulating suggestions, rephrasing. If that seems obsessive, it is. It’s also a useful way to treat your own work. When you distance yourself emotionally from the words on the page and stop seeing them as the precious thing that you made yourself, you are able to see the story for what it is. Not the incredible object your brilliant brain made. Not the thing you labored over for weeks, the thing you ditched work to finish, or the thing that better get accepted by a magazine soon or you’re going to conclude that you suck at writing and go back to playing video games in basements in a cloud of bong smoke. No. It’s a story. It either works or it needs work to make it work. As a story separated from the act of creation and all its backstory, you can better see its machinery: what’s missing? What makes it drag? Should you slow this scene down to amplify the drama? How can you let readers see what this really means? Do readers really need to know all those details just because they happened as described? These are the sorts of constructive comments we make in workshop, or at least that we should be making when we’re not critiquing our classmates’ essays based on laziness, envy or malice. So after months of this constructive flailing, when do you know that a story is done?

There’s a famous anecdote in jazz involving Miles Davis and John Coltrane. When Coltrane was still playing in Miles’ first quintet – often called the “classic quintet” – and hadn’t yet started to gain control of his horn or the many sounds inside him, his solos could be erratic. Some were transcendent exaltations of emotion and architectural brilliance; others were uneven, stop/start affairs full of alternately radiant and apprehensive passages. You can hear this range on the records Milestones, Steamin’, Workin’ and Relaxin’. You can hear his vast improvements on Kind of Blue and ’Round About Midnight. Well at some point, Coltrane and Davis were playing or hanging out – I don’t remember the details – and Coltrane said something about not knowinghow to end a solo. Miles said, “Take the horn out your mouth.” Overly simplistic, but it’s still good advice. It reminds me of what the polymath Paul Valéry once said: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

For those of us revising, maybe that’s a more useful guide that “finished.” Based on the responses of lit mag editors, my essays arerarely finished when I send one to them. Even the editors who accept my essays for publication often send comments and suggestions along with a requested revision. The process of editing together is a more collaborative version than most of us writers are used to doing alone, and it’s one so fruitful and invigorating that it makes me envy musicians collaborating in bands. Editor says I like X and Y, I think you should cut C and D, maybe better address the issues you raise in sections A and B. Then I revise. I can’t think of a single instance where I’ve revised something for an editor and the resulting essay wasn’t vastly improved. They’re always better. The experience has taught me two things: that (a) few finished stories are as finished as you think they are, and (b) what qualifies as “finished” is highly subjective, a matter of taste that varies reader to reader. You could go on revising forever. Sometimes you just have to take the horn out your mouth.

The essays that I quit revising and pronounce dead, I send to a folder called “the junk pile.” It’s like the oubliette in Labyrinth. If I feel that I’ve plumbed the depths of a subject deeply enough, that I’ve studied its angles and sculpted an essay that I would be so proud to let other people read that I’d be willing to take full responsibility for its strengths and weaknesses, then I take the horn out your mouth. No matter what you think of the idea that the Beats helped impart, that writing is a jazz solo, pure and unmodified, the fact of the matter is that not all jazz solos are entirely spontaneous. Once he quit using drugs and dedicated himself to his music, Coltrane practiced many of the parts of his best recorded solos. Other mid-century players did too. I’ll end there. I need to go chew on an unlit cigarillo.

 

* * *

I originally wrote this essay for Necessary Fiction.

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The talented fiction writer Matthew Salesses was writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction for the month of July. He used his time to gather other writers’ ideas on the revision process, and to explore and articulate his own. The result is a lively web salon and a potent pool of information like no other I’ve seen — many perspectives, insightful self-reflection, and tons of practical advice. Anyone looking for a window into the revision process will enjoy it.

Here’s Matt’s introduction, and here’s where Matt lives online. For reading, I recommend his novella, The Last Repatriate.

Below is the piece I wrote for him. Hope you find some of it useful.

*  *  *

Thoughts on Revision

There is power in a first draft, but Hemingway was mostly right: first drafts are shit. Maybe it’s not that way for everyone, but for me and what seems like many people, first drafts are a start; you find your story in revision.

Revision is both the most gratifying and the most draining part of my writing life. It exhausts while it challenges, engaging my aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities simultaneously, my conscious and subconscious minds, and it leaves me so worn out that it I no longer distinguish between the excitement of constantly thinking about and laboring over an essay, and the frustration of it. Revision is so essential that if I had to choose one line to describe the writing process, it would be: “writing is revision.” Maybe that’s why I love poet Robert Hass’s quote so much: “It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.” Exhausting or not, it still beats working in a cubicle.

Some people would disagree with the idea that writing is revision. There’s a popular notion that art is about inspiration, and the challenge of the artist is to capture a spontaneous outpouring as it happens, without spilling any of that molten magic while it’s hot. I don’t know where this idea came from. Maybe it stems from the human tendency to relax rather than work; maybe it’s as ancient as the Greeks. What I do know is that the idea can encourage laziness. By presenting the core mechanisms of creation as something extemporaneous rather than labor-intensive, revision comes to resemble a kind of ruination, a process of tinkering that dilutes the original potency of the spontaneous composition. The message is: “the less you mess with it the better.” I can’t speak for all disciplines, but for essay writers, I think that idea is damaging. When essayists do less, their essays contain less. Even the term “discipline” implies labor, practice.

The essays I like to read and try to write don’t spring to life as the proverbial lightning bolt delivered by magic or the gods. They accrue, developed through protracted effort to build, shape and layer. In tea terms: revision is the process of steeping to develop character. Those who resist it on the grounds that it lessens the raw life force of revelation not only fall prey to a clichéd, romantic notion of writing (the frenzied poet, scribbling fast enough to capture the words as they come), they often fail to fully tap all the meaning and power that their subjects and they as writers contain. Maybe that sounds smug, but in my experience, more work = better essay. For me, telling a story isn’t enough. Instead of an awesome anecdote, I want meaning, nuance, theme, dazzling sentences, interesting narrative architecture, little if any of which arrives when you first sit down to tap computer keys. If we could speak sentence as incredible as the ones we write, then writing would just be the act of transcribing words spoken into a digital recorder. I can’t think of any narrative nonfiction that I’ve read that resulted from that. Can Denis Johnson do that? Or Barry Hannah? Among his many accomplishments, Kerouac did us a disservice by making us think that writing was only about filling a scroll with speedy first takes. Maybe some writers think otherwise while the Adderall still has a grip on them.

We can learn a lot about revision from first impressions. People say you only get one chance to make one. That’s true, and sometimes you meet someone and immediately know, “Blowhard, don’t trust him,” or “Perv.” I always trust my gut. I also know that sometimes we misread people, so it’s wise to keep that first impression open to some amount of modification and allow in new information from further interactions. Meaning, as we get to know people, we broaden our initial perceptions and allow them to develop depth, even when depth contains the sort of contradictory information that is central to human nature. This is how revision operates.

I might think I know what an essay is about when I start writing it, but I don’t really know. Oh, I think, this is about Googie architecture in my home town, or, This is about this one Miles Davis song where Miles pissed off Red Garland and had to play piano on the recording after Red stormed out of the studio. But that’s just one thread of the story, often the surface-level subject, what you might call the “ostensible subject,” which functions as a window into other component stories. Those other stories often reveal the essay’s theme: loss, regret, longing, failed hopes. They can also be the ones that readers connect to on an emotional or psychological level. More often, they’re the ones that address the question of meaning, or at least tries to chase meaning down. Ok, Googie, but what does it mean? In essays, meaning and theme are vital. I have yet to start an essay with either of them in mind. I find them through revision.

Revision takes me past my initial idea of what the essay is about. Once there, I explore the many facets of my story by going over and over and over it, plunging its depths. Ooh, what’s this here? And: Hey, that’s interesting. Never noticed that before, and I check it out. You see connections, see parallels, symbols, tangents and stories-within-stories. Revision is the playground where you can let your mind run free and discover not just things, but the things that are crucial to a literary essay. Instead of relaying information, and instead of just telling a compelling anecdote to get laughs or shock or entertain, spending time tinkering allows you to let go of narrative and your preconceptions long enough to see what it all really means. Which is to say, first impressions are important, but the more compelling portrait is a broader portrait, and that mostly emerges from revision.

To do this, you have to humble yourself: accept that you don’t know as much as you think you do, or as much as you would like to. If you explore your subject deeply enough, you’ll end up knowing a lot more than when you started. Readers will, too. That’s half of the fun. In the finished piece, your narrative voice might be confident, projecting the strength that assures readers that you’re taking them somewhere worthwhile and that you’re a knowledgeable, reliable guide. To get there, you have to stand before your subject and acknowledge your limits. You start out writing about X and Y, and you end up writing about who knows what. Without getting all New Agey, it’s the same thing we do when looking up at the full moon while camping and feeling like an inconsequential speck of dust on a rock in the vastness of space: there is so much we don’t know. I like to do the same with the story itself: whatever story I start with, I know that the bulk remains to be discovered. And so I revise.

To revise, you also have to be patient. You’re not going to finish that essay as quickly as you’d like. You might not finish it before your favorite lit mag’s reading period closes. You might not even finish it this summer. Good stuff takes time. That’s why barbecue cooked for a day over tended coals in a pit tastes a billion times better than that stuff people cook for a few hours over wood chips in a metal smoker. Go eat some ramen at Daikokuya in Los Angeles. You’re not going to tell the cooks that simmering their perfect porky broth overnight was overkill.

I wish I had a system for revision. Granted, systems can be constraining and snuff out innovation, but they can also produce what scientists would call “reproducible results.” My only system is: drink tea, eat chocolate, and heed Harry Crews’ advice about keeping your ass in the chair. Sometimes I also chew on unlit cigarillos. I used to smoke and think I like the trace nicotine. Mostly it’s that, in lieu of specific revision strategies, I rely on that obsessive tea/chocolate/chewing nonsense to help me concentrate and keep me grounded during what is an inherently imprecise, ethereal, unscientific process.

In other words, I’m flailing. I drink tea and follow my gut. For all the formalities and “craft” stuff that I know, intuition is my guide. My chart: tell a good story; be insightful, probing but entertaining. Not dancing-in-short-shorts entertaining. Not ah-isn’t-that-clever, but entertaining in that I want to give readers a narrative that takes them somewhere deep, on a journey both through a story described and a landscape of ideas. How I extract that from the ether, or shape it from raw experience, is something I figure out differently each time. In that sense, revising always feels like I’m doing it for the first time every time. In another sense, the more I do it, the easier (“easier”) it gets. Maybe I’m getting more in touch with my intuition. Maybe I’ve become more willing to follow my gut and not second guess myself, or I’m becoming more reckless and willing to play around with narrative architecture and follow whims down the ideological rabbit holes and stop being such a cautious baby. Maybe I’m better able to recognize what it is I’m looking for: themes, symbols, metaphor, narrative.

What I’m left with each morning, then, are the basics: the need to go back into an essay and follow my instincts. I rearrange. I add and subtract. I pee in the beaker and see how that changes the flavor and coloration. There’s no big checklist of things to do or look for. It’s just “find the meaning,” “reveal the themes,” “have fun,” “tell a compelling story” and “cut out everything else.” I like what Rick Moody once said about writing: he tries to cut out all the parts that he as a reader would skip.

Even though this phrase sounds like one plucked from a teen goth message board, the “best advice on cutting” I’ve ever received came in the form of an offhand comment at dinner. A few fellow grad students and I were discussing revision, how much we loved or loathed it, ways we went about it. “I keep everything I cut in a separate document,” one person said. “That way I can always go back and retrieve it if I want to.” Then she admitted: “I never do.” Instead of using that separate document as a reservoir for retrievable overflow, she used it as a dump disguised as a storage shed. Knowing that all that material was there emboldened her cuts. She trimmed more daringly and frequently because she knew that whatever she cut hadn’t been erased, it had simply been moved to another page. If you need to think of revising partly as a form of moving things aside rather than eliminating, go for it. “Erasing” sounds final in a way that “moving offsite” does not, even when it’s just semantics. Tell yourself whatever you need to tell yourself to get the superfluous stuff out and find the keepers, because the truth remains: the absence of unnecessary text makes rooms for newer, better stuff, and that leaner arrangement allows the vital text to come more clearly into view.

Even though I’ve largely taught myself to write just by practicing for years, I learned other things in grad school, too. I attended a low-residency MFA program, so I didn’t spend as much time in workshop as I did alone at my computer. One of the things that brief workshop experience taught me, though, was how to identify and articulate what I was going on in an essay, the so-called mechanics of it. Another lesson proved useful during revision: the ability to read my work as if it were written by someone else.

One teacher at my grad program said that, after decades of writing and teaching, he could no longer read anything without editing it. Even if he wasn’t making editorial marks on the page, he was editing in his mind: trimming sentences, rearranging passages, formulating suggestions, rephrasing. If that seems obsessive, it is. It’s also a useful way to treat your own work. When you distance yourself emotionally from the words on the page and stop seeing them as the precious thing that you made yourself, you are able to see the story for what it is. Not the incredible object your brilliant brain made. Not the thing you labored over for weeks, the thing you ditched work to finish, or the thing that better get accepted by a magazine soon or you’re going to conclude that you suck at writing and go back to playing video games in basements in a cloud of bong smoke. No. It’s a story. It either works or it needs work to make it work. As a story separated from the act of creation and all its backstory, you can better see its machinery: what’s missing? What makes it drag? Should you slow this scene down to amplify the drama? How can you let readers see what this really means? Do readers really need to know all those details just because they happened as described? These are the sorts of constructive comments we make in workshop, or at least that we should be making when we’re not critiquing our classmates’ essays based on laziness, envy or malice. So after months of this constructive flailing, when do you know that a story is done?

There’s a famous anecdote in jazz involving Miles Davis and John Coltrane. When Coltrane was still playing in Miles’ first quintet – often called the “classic quintet” – and hadn’t yet started to gain control of his horn or the many sounds inside him, his solos could be erratic. Some were transcendent exaltations of emotion and architectural brilliance; others were uneven, stop/start affairs full of alternately radiant and apprehensive passages. You can hear this range on the records Milestones, Steamin’, Workin’ and Relaxin’. You can hear his vast improvements on Kind of Blue and ’Round About Midnight. Well at some point, Coltrane and Davis were playing or hanging out – I don’t remember the details – and Coltrane said something about not knowing how to end a solo. Miles said, “Take the horn out your mouth.” Overly simplistic, but it’s still good advice. It reminds me of what the polymath Paul Valéry once said: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

For those of us revising, maybe that’s a more useful guide that “finished.” Based on the responses of lit mag editors, my essays are rarely finished when I send one to them. Even the editors who accept my essays for publication often send comments and suggestions along with a requested revision. The process of editing together is a more collaborative version than most of us writers are used to doing alone, and it’s one so fruitful and invigorating that it makes me envy musicians collaborating in bands. Editor says I like X and Y, I think you should cut C and D, maybe better address the issues you raise in sections A and B. Then I revise. I can’t think of a single instance where I’ve revised something for an editor and the resulting essay wasn’t vastly improved. They’re always better. The experience has taught me two things: that (a) few finished stories are as finished as you think they are, and (b) what qualifies as “finished” is highly subjective, a matter of taste that varies reader to reader. You could go on revising forever. Sometimes you just have to take the horn out your mouth.

The essays that I quit revising and pronounce dead, I send to a folder called “the junk pile.” It’s like the oubliette in Labyrinth. If I feel that I’ve plumbed the depths of a subject deeply enough, that I’ve studied its angles and sculpted an essay that I would be so proud to let other people read that I’d be willing to take full responsibility for its strengths and weaknesses, then I take the horn out your mouth. No matter what you think of the idea that the Beats helped impart, that writing is a jazz solo, pure and unmodified, the fact of the matter is that not all jazz solos are entirely spontaneous. Once he quit using drugs and dedicated himself to his music, Coltrane practiced many of the parts of his best recorded solos. Other mid-century players did too. I’ll end there. I need to go chew on an unlit cigarillo.

Read Full Post »

As much as I read, I don’t find myself rereading too many books. I’m no Larry McMurtry, revisiting the same book year after year. Mostly, I reread essays, and the pieces that I find myself returning to with most frequency were written by Luc Sante, Calvin Trillin and Joseph Mitchell.

In his documentary stories for the New Yorker, pioneering nonfiction writer Joseph Mitchell celebrated both eccentrics and the average Joe, and in turn, he immortalized a scruffier, working class era of New York City. He also wrote what might be the longest quotes in our genre.

When first published in 1956, Mitchell’s classic “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” contained 12,056 words; over nine thousand of them were directly attributed to Hunter as quotations. Many of the stories in Mitchell’s book The Bottom of the Harbor are like that. “Up in the Old Hotel” contains a quote that runs for over four pages. “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” has one that goes for eight pages. “The Rivermen” boasts the longest of all: ten and a half pages – or six pages followed by four more, if you count the three-lines of intervening dialogue as an interruption. I don’t. But it’s not simply the length that interests me; it’s what length requires of a writer’s memory.

Take this quote from “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” where Mr. Hunter tells Mitchell about picking a plant called pokeweed: “I went up there one morning this spring to pick some, but we had a late spring, if you remember, and the pokeweed hadn’t come up. The fiddleheads were up, and golden club, and spring beauty, and skunk cabbage, and bluets, but no pokeweed. So I was looking here and looking there, and not noticing where I was stepping, and I made a misstep, and the next thing I knew I was up to my knees in mud.” Mitchell didn’t use a tape recorder, and he rarely took notes, which raises certain questions: how did he remember these details? The precise order in which Hunter listed them? And, if many of his quotes aren’t verbatim, then how much of his nonfiction is to be believed?

In his article for the Oxford American, “The Collector of the Everyday,” author Sam Stephenson doesn’t believe that Mitchell necessarily remembered details accurately every time – that Mr. Hunter said golden club before spring beauty before bluets – only that Mitchell got the larger truth right. William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, agrees with Stephenson and defends Mitchell’s technique and integrity: “Now, nobody thinks Mr. Hunter really said all that in one spurt. Mitchell did a heap of splicing. Yet I have no doubt that Mr. Hunter did say it at one moment or another—that all the words and turns of phrase are his.” Zinsser describes Mitchell’s stories as mosaics, literary composites that reflected Mitchell’s journalistic technique. He would befriend a knowledgeable and colorful source – a fishmonger, oysterman, tugboat captain, etcetera – and make multiple visits over the course of weeks or months, sometimes years, gradually gathering quotes, history, scenes and a sense of the cultural landscape. Then, Mitchell would assemble his stories over time, layering the material like some sort of phyllo dough pastry; yet he rendered these portraits to depict a particular occasion – a single visit to a graveyard, a single chat with a Bowery barfly – so that they are composites of facts, collages. He likely fashioned his Olympian quotations the same way.

Certain critics might say that such composites are fictions, because the information portrayed didn’t exist in the real world in the precise way it was rendered. The composite only exists because the artist created it. I used to agree with this line of thinking.

When I first discovered Mitchell at age twenty-five, I believed that George Hunter said those words in that way verbatim, because I assumed all dialogue in nonfiction was verbatim. Not a spliced rendition, not a near-accurate depiction, not a highly educated guess, but a replica, a photograph in text. I was naïve about the mechanics of nonfiction writing, and the complex nature of truth. Now, after a decade reading and writing narrative nonfiction, I still expect accuracy whether I’m reading a magazine or a memoir, but I also know that truth is more complicated than the usual “accurate/inaccurate” dichotomy suggests. If the parts that Mitchell used to fashioned his hybrid stories and hybrid quotes were facts themselves, then is not the collage of facts also true if it captures the larger truth of his subjects? By larger truth, I mean the essence of Mister Hunter’s personality, and the particular texture of his speech. And on a thematic level, I mean the emotional truth of Hunter’s situation: aging and looming specter of his, and everyone’s, impending death. This is part of what Zinsser means when he says that “all the phrases and turns of phrase are his.”  He means that despite the splicing, Mitchell captured Hunter’s essence by accurately portraying his diction (like the way Hunter said “spring beauty” rather than “beauties”). Mitchell didn’t make quoted phrases up, didn’t invent information; rather, he simmered the facts so they accreted into a more potent truth, which is why the quotes sound like his speakers, rather than like Mitchell. This is also why I consider Mitchell’s stories nonfiction.

Mitchell’s literary standard was that of both the artist and the reputable journalist. He organized his facts in a creative arrangement in order to best serve the story. As Zinsser says: “Although Mitchell altered the truth about elapsed time, he used a dramatist’s prerogative to compress and focus his story, thereby giving the reader a manageable framework. If he had told the story in real time, strung across all the days and months he did spend on Staten Island, he would have achieved the numbing truth of Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of a man having an eight-hour sleep. By careful manipulation he raised the craft of nonfiction to art. But he never manipulated Mr. Hunter’s truth; there was no ‘inferring,’ no ‘fabricating.’ He has played fair.” By employing these techniques, Mitchell spared readers the superfluous details, framed the relevant information, and distilled the piece to its essence, for the sake of the audience’s reading experience. In this way, Mitchell’s stories predated the “nonfiction novel” of Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe, as well as the 1960s “new journalism” that followed after: using dialogue, character development, narrative arc, foreshortening, well-sequenced scenes, emergent themes, dramatic tension in nonfiction, rather than the who, what, where, when, why of standard expository reportage. Mitchell’s Olympian quotations are sure to remain one of nonfiction’s most peculiar attractions – an extraordinary monument to truth’s complex incarnations – but it’s his stories’ artfulness and readability that have made them endure.

On a side note, I found this short documentary, about the old Fulton Ferry Hotel, from which Mitchell’s classic essay, and his collection, take their name:

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Over at HTMLGiant, I wrote a short review of Craig Taylor’s epic oral history, Londoners, which is both a joy to read and a study in the form. I’m eating some crisps to celebrate the fact that I still have a number of pages left to read — comforting to know the book’s not over. Here it is:

Reviews

I Like Oral

Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It by Craig Taylor

Ecco, 2012 448 pages / $29.99

Buy from Amazon  /  Powells

 

Looking at a map of London, you see neighborhoods with familiar names such as Chelsea and Greenwich, and you see neighborhoods that sound like cheeses (Rotherhithe), erectile dysfunction pills (Vauxhall), Tolkien inventions (Isle of Dogs) and enormous breakfasts (West Ham). Maybe you’ve visited London, but for those of us who haven’t and who still harbor a deep curiosity, despite the dreary weather, bad food, soot, lootings, and long shadow of Bill Buford’s soccer hooligan book Among the Thugs, Craig Taylor’s Londoners both confirms and broadens London’s reputation as an enchanting, holy polluted kickass clusterfuck. And it does so in a way that proves as interesting as its subject.

Londoners is an oral history, a fact suggested by its old-McSweeney’s-ish subtitle: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told By Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long For It. Unlike a traditional narrative or expository history, an oral history is, by its nature, a “through the eyes of” point-of-view. It isn’t theoretical. It isn’t analytical. It doesn’t offer insight into its subject by editorializing or examining, or by trying to contextualize things in a bed of paraphrased or distilled information. Instead, it’s a collection of trimmed and sequenced quotations – just spoken words, the voice of the people rather than the journalist.

Those who frequently read about music will recognize the format from Legs McNeils’ canonical Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, John Cook’s Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, and Mark Yarm’s recent Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. All use the oral history form to great effect. Taylor’s is equally engrossing. Over the course of five years, he interviewed over 200 people in London, producing some 950,000 words of transcribed interviews, before winnowing his selections down to the wriggling mass of text that fills these 400 pages. The book not only asks, “What is London?” it asks, “Who is a Londoner?” As Taylor says in the introduction, his goal was “to assemble a collage of voices that could yield a richness about a place and time.” He wanted to do so in a way that created the “narrative arc and emotional truth” and “pace and texture of a good novel.” He isn’t fooled about the project, though. “Whatever it is,” he says, “Londoners is not a definitive portrait; it’s a snapshot of London here and now.”

In Londoners’ case, the oral history format also reflects the nature of not just London, but cities in general. They’re knowable yet not entirely fathomable. They can’t be reduced to simple characterizations, because as well you can describe them physically, their essence is more elusive. As a composite of various, often conflicting impressions, an oral history might come the closest to capturing a city’s character, because the form itself is a bundle of contradictory, overlapping voices. Londoners is a case of form as function. The portrait that emerges from it is, like its subject, a pastiche, and like any community, it’s comprised of its residents’ experiences, and as Shakespeare says in the book’s epigraph, “What is the city but the people?” (It should be noted that, despite the book’s format, Taylor’s intro stands alone as a stellar first-person narrative essay on London, the nature of place, travel, home and being an outsider.)

Writing an oral history isn’t easy. Taylor and McNeil didn’t just dump a bunch of quotes onto the page and slap a cover on it. This isn’t an exercise in transcription. Transcription is only the first step. The job of a narrative historian is to write history by metabolizing existing information, paraphrasing and selecting quotations, and telling the story in his or her own words. The job of the oral historian is to shape the exact words of others into a story, by interviewing innumerable sources, then cutting, refining, editing, grouping and sequencing quotations into a tightly curated composite that forms a larger portrait. That’s a different challenge than the traditional narrative author’s job, but no less of a chore.

After conducting thousands of hours of interviews, the oral historian has to sift through the tape to cull the choicest quotes, the ones that actually say something interesting, substantive, or revealing. As most journalists know, not all sources give good quotes, and not everyone is a natural storyteller. Some people ramble. Others jump around. Some say ‘um’ too much, or ‘like,’ like, um, way too much, and double back on themselves, don’t get the point, repeat and repeat, or can’t remember enough specifics to make their comments useful. So authors edit and refine such quotes. When including a block of quoted text, oral historians also have to leave out their own comments in order to preserve the quote’s integrity, namely, the comments the interviewer made in the middle of the conversation in order to extract more information (“So what was that like?”) and to keep sources talking (“Cool, tell me more.”). And they have to cluster and order their text so that the story’s arc, or a gestalt, emerges. That’s hard work, and an art in itself.

In the end, Taylor fails to “sort out just who is, and who isn’t, a Londoner” or fully comprehend his home. This is central to the book’s success, because this limitation acknowledges the fundamental elusiveness and complexity of the world’s most interesting cities. This isn’t to say nothing is learned. Londoners is overflowing with life and detail. It’s one of those books whose pleasures derive from dipping randomly into the pages, slowly savoring what you find over months’ time. Aside from the wild anecdotes and charged language, what Londoners offers above all is an antidote to all the common, negative characterizations of the city as cold, difficult, dirty and mean. As a Transport for London Lost Property clerk says in the second chapter, despite the “bleak view of London,” “there’s a hell of a lot of good people here. It’s a testament to the honesty of Londoners and people in general who hand things in.” It’s something I think about during my regular bouts of Anglophilia, where I rewatch Fawlty Towers and eat crisps in the desperate ways armchair travelers do when they can’t afford a plane ticket.

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