Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The art of rewriting

"The best writing is rewriting," E.B.White once wrote, or maybe rewrote. It's certainly true, if difficult.

I recently told an executive writing a book how F. Scott Fitzgerald rewrote his novel The Great Gatsby like crazy. Maybe it was on my mind because it's now out in film yet again.

What I recalled from graduate school, about half right, was that what had originally been the first chapter had in the rewriting become the last chapter. Dr. Kenneth E. Eble, a professor of literature, who knew better because he actually examined Fitzgerald's original manuscripts, observed:
The pencil draft both reveals and masks Fitzgerald’s struggles. The manuscript affords a complete first version, but the pages are not numbered serially from beginning to end, nor are the chapters and sections of chapters all tied together. There are three segments (one a copy of a previous draft) designated “Chapter III,” two marked “Chapter VI.” The amount of revising varies widely from page to page and chapter to chapter; the beginning and end are comparatively clean, the middle most cluttered.  
Writing is like sausage making. You really don't want to observe either.
Throughout the pencil draft, Fitzgerald made numerous revisions which bring out his chief traits as a reviser: he seldom threw anything good away, and he fussed endlessly at getting right things in the right places.
Among the many lessons Fitzgerald applied between the rough draft and the finished novel was that of cutting and setting his diamonds so that they caught up and cast back a multitude of lights. In so doing, he found it unnecessary to have an authorial voice gloss a scene. The brilliance floods in upon the reader; there is no necessity for Nick Carraway to say, as he did at one point in the pencil draft: “I told myself that I was studying it all like a philosopher, a sociologist, that there was a unity here that I could grasp after or would be able to grasp in a minute, a new facet, elemental and profound.” The distance Fitzgerald traveled from This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned to The Great Gatsby is in the rewriting of the novel. There the sociologist and philosopher were at last controlled and the writer assumed full command.
And Eble sets me straight on my faulty memory.
The last page of the novel — “gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world.” — was originally written as the conclusion of Chapter I. Some time before the draft went into the submission copy, Fitzgerald recognized that the passage was too good for a mere chapter ending, too definitive of the larger purposes of the book, to remain there. By the time the pencil draft was finished, that memorable paragraph had been put into its permanent place, had fixed the image of man holding his breath in the presence of the continent, “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."
I know. That memo to the boss ain't the great American novel. Just remember that the best of them have rewriting in their bag of tricks.

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