Archive for June, 2024

On revising manuscripts: “Mistrust everything that is effortless!”

Thursday, June 13th, 2024
Muriel Spark’s approach? Not for him.

We’ve written about Trevor Cribben Merrill‘s novel Minor Indignities here. We’ve written about Trevor here and here and here). And we’ve also written about fascinating substack, Writing Fiction After Girard, and we recommend a look, especially today, as he writes about “Dana Gioia and René Girard on the Art of Revision.”

An excerpt:

The British novelist Muriel Spark (author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie among many others) is said to have revised her work very sparingly, if at all. In this interview on the BBC she cheekily summarizes her novel-writing method: “I begin at the beginning, I write the title, then I write my name, I turn over, I write the title of the book, I write ‘chapter one,’ and then I write on. I leave a space so I can make alterations as I go along, but I don’t revise it afterwards. And then it goes to the typist, and she types it, and I revise that, and that’s the book. That’s finished.”

Trevor riffs on that theme: “’Man mistrusts everything that is effortless,’ the philosopher Joseph Pieper once wrote, and much as I love her novels, I will confess to mistrusting Spark’s approach to the art of fiction. But this may only be because I am so incapable of emulating it. I am the sort of writer whose drafts are usually bad to an embarrassing extent, though as a rule I only realize this in retrospect. Perhaps you have had the experience of sending what you think is a finished piece of writing off to a friend. No sooner has it escaped your control than its flaws become glaringly, horrifyingly obvious. Or else you close your laptop and go to bed in the smug belief that you have written something masterful, only to wake up the next morning, reread the previous night’s pages, and realize how abysmally wrong you were. If these experiences have the ring of familiarity about them, then you and I are the same sort of writers.

The first reaction in such cases is usually to do everything possible to save face—frantically revise and resend, begging your recipient to ignore the previous message; delete the subpar pages and, chalking their mediocrity up to fatigue, pretend they never existed. I suspect that this is because most of us, deep down, feel somehow that we should be capable of tossing off novels (or poems, plays) with the same ease as Muriel Spark. We see our imperfect drafts as evidence of a shameful defect from which our artistic betters have been spared.

Read the rest here.