Guest Post, Alan Cheuse: Revision

“I tend to scribble a lot” by Nic McPhee is licensed under CC by 2.0

I don’t want you to take this as bragging, because it isn’t. It’s a description of what can happen if you keep on writing decade after decade for the love of the work, with a little bit of luck, that touch we all need, of course.

And I don’t want you to think this is yet another hoarse exhortation to revise, revise!

My first writing workshop instructor, the poet John Ciardi, back at Rutgers in the early 1960s, exhorted me enough for a life time.

Revise, revise!

(He said this in the same intonation that we find at the end of Frost’s wonderfully playful poem on old age, “Provide, Provide”. Yes, you’ve got it—Provide, Provide.)

Revise, revise!

“Writing is revising,” Ciardi reminded us, a wayward band of juniors and seniors, six of us in a workshop he conducted in the basement of the old Rutgers English house, a former residence on College Avenue which the university had taken over decades before.

“Writing is revising.”

I can still hear his voice in this advice, a slightly patrician-ized South End Boston accent that Ciardi must have worked on while one of the few local Italian boys attending Harvard (where he worked as a writer in residence, of sorts, supplying essays of his own devising for lunk-headed legacies who had the patrician voices but not the supreme intelligence about poetry and fiction that should have come along with it. In other words, he worked his way through college writing papers for his betters.)

I can hear that too.

“For my bet-ters.”

By then I had done more than half the work toward becoming something like this new hero of mine, the Southie poet now in residence at Rutgers, living in near-by Metuchen, New Jersey and also writing a weekly column for “The Saturday Review of Literature.” I had lived for nineteen years in North Jersey, where after an empty, and sometimes violent, middle school so-called education, and while keeping up a certain (small) ability at softball and an even smaller one at basketball, I threw myself into the reading of novels and stories that lighted up my present life and glowed forcefully on the horizon as well.

I read sea stories in grade school and science fiction through eighth grade and by sophomore year of high school I was trying to read Faulkner, whose The Sound and the Fury (about which I understood almost nothing but loved the cadences of the lines) our chemistry teacher, a big doughy white-haired man named Pat White, tore from my hands during a study hour and never returned to me.

Something like happened to Ciardi and poetry early on in his working-class life in Boston.

So now all I had to do was write, and these two halves, living and art, might come together and make me a whole person. If you’re reading this you know the feeling. You live through immense sea-storms of language in books so great you barely grasp what’s going on inside them while at the same time plodding along in school, making fun of the feeble teachers who give you Julius Caesar to read or, worse, to listen to on recordings of “great performances.”

My greatest performance until then was to live as though I were a normal kid, even though now and then I would hole up with a science-fiction novel by Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov, or Dubliners (confiscated from me by my home room teacher before I could read it half way through). Oh, and also play ball, and commit an occasional small larceny (stealing cases of Coke from a delivery truck), and brawl—verbally, only, thank the gods—with my father, and attend class and sink into a vortex of forceful apathy that convinced me that there was no such thing as education in New Jersey, only place-keeping until such time as you could join the armed forces or get a job as a clerk and then a manager—or, if you were as lucky as I was, assumed like some prince of the lower-middle-classes that college was your due.

College became the intellectual equivalent for revision.

My slovenly class room habits turned more strict, my near-sightedness about life’s possible pleasures turned into long-range vision, and I began, however haphazardly, to regard my origins and my family as something interesting rather than a burden. Revise, revise! Though I hand no idea that I was doing it, I was doing it. Fiction, poetry, music, painting, architecture, dance—all art came together into a single force and wrenched open my eyes, as in the stunning moment at the end of Rilke’s great poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”.

We cannot know his legendary head

with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise

the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could

a smile run through the placid hips and thighs

to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced

beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders

and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,

burst like a star: for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

Years went by, nearly twenty, before I found a toe-hold on the climb up the rocky mount of revision, but the more I worked at it, the more natural it became. The sense of where you must begin a story rather than where you have first begun it. The sense of where you must expand a novel—open it up to further exploration—rather than where it now stands. The necessity to write more and more scenes to make a character’s psychology become more than mere statement. The numerous attempts to make the raw beautiful rather than pretty, and take the beautiful closer to the sublime.

To say this eventually comes to us naturally may cover over the fact that as natural as it seems it never comes easily. When I edited a collection of Bernard Malamud’s essays along with my dear old friend and fellow novelist and story writer Nicholas Delbanco I discovered Malamud’s painstaking method for making the natural seem a common occurrence. Here’s how he worked on a short story. You can draw inferences from his about how he approached novels.

First he wrote a draft in long hand and then typed it over and made corrections in the typescript. Then he wrote a second draft in long hand and typed it up to make corrections that comprised another draft. And so on, sometimes up to a dozen times, to make a finished story. In the page proofs for a magazine version of the story he made corrections with a pen. When he had enough stories for a collection he made further corrections in the galley proofs, and then again in the page proofs. When he had a finished book on hand, it was never finished. When he read a story in public he made further changes as he went along in the reading of it.

Ciardi and Malamud—not a one-two punch, more like a one-one thousand punch to help me to see how to make art better and better.

As I write these words I have just about completed one of the most fortunate endeavors a novelist can undertake. A new publisher has come along to bring out a new edition—this would be the fourth!—of a novel I wrote thirty years ago and published almost that long ago. Back then I called it The Grandmothers’ Club and this remained its title through its first three iterations, its original hard cover, and then two paperback editions. At the urging of this publisher—Frederic Price of Fig Tree Books–I took the time to revise it after all these many decades, and recast the punctuation, particularly the quotation marks. When I first wrote it I was in the throes of modernism, as if caught up in a fever that had a fever, something that’s cooled down a bit for me by now, to, say, a steady boil with now and flares of flame like sunspots. The book changed enough so that we changed its title. Now called Prayers for the Living it comes out in a new trade paperback edition in March.

Revise, revise! Have I changed my life? I don’t know, I don’t know. Have I changed my art? I invite you to come and see.

Guest Post, Alan Cheuse: A Brief Bit of Prose

Captain MarvelIn the first issue of SR I published a brief bit of prose which I saw as a sketch of some sort though it could easily have passed for a prose poem (the editors decided on the latter). I include it here in its entirety, centering as it does on a single object from my past:

“An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring, Perth Amboy, New Jersey, C.1947”

Jagged reddish-orange lightning-shaped scores, a circle with com­pass arrow and points east west north south within, and in the center of the circle, an oval, an opening invisible unless you held it directly up to your eye, an opening—

Peep inside, that is, press it in a dark room to one eye while the other you keep closed tight, and as soon as you become accustomed to the dark you’ll begin to see light swirling within the ring, halos and rings of glittering pieces of light, particles of atoms, of atoms grow­ing smaller and smaller in the depths of the once tiny but now ever-expanding space, a peek into another space, into a seemingly infinite galaxy of galaxies, dancing, spinning, sparkling, exploding now! oh, that flash of fire in the distance! but where? but how? how far away? a fingertip and an infinity!

And what if this could be real? And what if there were stars in all those flashing rings of light, stars with planets and planets with creatures living upon them? what if there were other human beings living there? what if, what if you looked long enough and hard enough, squinted at this peep-hole all night long until you might see into the lake of stars and into the small galaxy with the yellow star and the green-blue planet resembling earth and on down through the blue-white atmosphere to the continent of North America and in the east of that formation to the state of New Jersey and the town that lies at the confluence of waters, where the river meets the kill to form the bay, and a boy lies in the dark,

his heart beating with excitement, with the expectation of worlds to come while he squints into the peep-hole of a ring?

Some years later, as I was putting together the story collection of mine that’s coming out in April I saw the piece as wonderfully introductory, a little portal into the various worlds of the stories.

An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring turned out to be the title I immediately seized on for the collection and thanks to eBay (something I thought I would never write) I found a photograph of a ring that nearly conformed to my recollection of it.

(Which comes first, the event or the recollection? That’s a subject worth another day’s work, yes?)

I thought I would write fairly quickly about this incident—the SR being there as the lead into the stories and lending the book itself the title—but as I type now I find myself slowing down a bit, pausing between sentences, to consider the role of the little magazine in my life and in the lives of many fiction writers. Without the editors asking me to contribute something, however brief, to that first issue, I would not have had something, however brief, to use as the entry to the stories—a need I had not recognized, ironically, until I had filled it.

Magazines like SR are great sounding boards for which one can compose work that seems odd and strange even to the writer. You know, Forster’s famous remark that he never knew what he was saying until he wrote it down? If I see a new story of mine in a magazine, that not only gives me hope to keep working but gives me a lens through which I can read the story and figure out what it is. Which is something you can’t really put into words. What is that little lead piece? A short short? A piece of so-called “flash” fiction? (One of my first editors, James Thomas, invented that phrase and “Sudden Fiction” before that. I really don’t ever see him, and Robert Shapard who worked on the project along with him, ever getting the credit they deserve for this.)

The truth is, I can say it is one variety of prose or another, but that’s merely my own observation. In the world of story-reading (as in bird-watching, I suppose), the reader or the observer is the final arbiter. What does the writer know of the work or even himself? As much as the bird in the field, I think. I would rather just keep the feeling about what I do rather than put it into words. The certain “je ne sais quoi” that Thomas Jefferson sometimes refers to finds good use in the life of any artist. What have I wrought? My view, as Malamud used to assert, is just that, one view, once the work goes out into the world. To be précised, he described himself, after he published something, as “just another reader.”

Do you like that? I do. It saves everyone, the humble and the great and the puffed-up, everyone, from making claims about him or herself, in a world where, let’s face it, the reader is still king.

“Every morning I wake up,” Robert Penn Warren once said to me, “and look at that blank page and I understand that I am still just trying to be a writer…”