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The revision nightmare: even after death

infinityAsk anyone: I’m downright evangelical about revision. I preach it; I do it; sometimes I even dream it.  But there was one thing I always thought: a story (or poem or novel), once published, gets to go in the “best I could at the time” file, abandoned, which means you don’t have to revise it anymore. Arguably, you could continue to revise the same story for the rest of your life, and perhaps even in the afterlife. If there is one. Or even if not. (Memo to Tess Gallagher & co.) This holds true, often, when a poet or story writer goes back to edit a collection. As Tobias Wolff said somewhere at some time, when he collected his stories, he wanted to change much more than he changed. He limited himself to changing just the most cringe-worthy words and phrases. It was an act of modesty and restraint.

Well, the other day, after tearing through my room for a lost letter, I found an old half-read McSweeney’s. One of the stories I hadn’t read before was “Retreat” by Wells Tower. (Sorry that you’re getting unwanted access to the mission derailment that typically occurs when I seek to do something like find a letter.) I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, except that I’m reading the new collection by Wells Tower right now, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, and I had just read (and enjoyed) “Retreat.”  Well, it turns out that in the months after Tower published his story in McSweeney’s, not exactly a basement rag, he put the story through a major revision, changed POV, kept the overall flow and plot of the story, but pretty significantly altered the characters, their names, and the thematic undertones of the story.  See for yourself:

  1. Sometimes, sometimes, after six or so large drinks, it seems like a sane idea to call my little brother on the phone. It takes a lot of solvent to bleach out such dark memories as my ninth birthday party, when Stephen, age six, ran up behind me at the goldfish pond at Umstead Park and shoved me face-first into the murk.  (the opening from “Retreat,” collected in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, told in first person from Matthew, the older brother’s, POV)
  2. I had not spoken to my brother Matthew in thirteen months when he telephoned me last autumn.
         “Hey there, buddy. Ask you a question. What’s your thinking on mountains?”
         “I have no objection to them,” I told him.
         “Good, good,” he said. “Did you hear I bought one? I’m on top of it right now.” (the opening from “Retreat,” published in McSweeney’s 23, narrated in first person by Alan, the little brother)

So you can see that Alan became Stephen, slightly less sympathetic than our first-person narrator; also, a third character, George (previously Bob) transformed from a flakey aging hippie to a rugged-and-revered-if-eccentric  father figure. The story’s “motor” changed, too, focusing much more on Matthew’s desire for a home (represented by place + his brother), for a father figure in George.  While I’m sure everyone would have a different take on which story they prefer, narratively and thematically, the newly published version seems much stronger to me.

This is really bad news for my resolve to let published stories stew in their imperfection for eternity. I don’t need this. And I never did find that letter.

5 comments on “The revision nightmare: even after death

  1. Günter
    May 7, 2009

    When I find out that an author has altered stories between book editions, as Dan Chaon did when Fitting Ends was republished in 2003, or as Wolff did when he released his New and Selected last year, I pull out the older book – in Chaon’s case I actually went to the library and tracked it down; it contained a story OMITTED! from the “retouched” volume – and do line-by-line comparisons. Usually they’re not particularly edifying, but it can be a treat to learn which words or phrases a master like Wolff considered unworthy and to guess at why. The editor is usually invisible.

    I need to pick up that Wells Tower.

  2. iheartya
    May 8, 2009

    Wow. I’m crying.

  3. andreadupree
    May 8, 2009

    Gunter: If you do, Tower’s two are WAY different. I swear it’ll edify you more than you can even handle!

    Sarah: I know. I told you. It was hard. Thanks for sharing your deep emotions on this.

  4. Pingback: Speaking of Wells Tower… « The Lighthouse Writers Blog

  5. Pingback: Getting a shot at imperfection « The Lighthouse Writers Top-Secret Blog

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This entry was posted on May 7, 2009 by in Good Books, The Scoop, The Write Idea.

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