Friday, 9 October 2009

Sontag Homage to Revision

On September 27, Keith and I had a brief exchange about compulsive editing following my last post about the ways in which writing can lose interest once we feel we've figured out the troubling mysteries it presents.
"I seem to remember that Nietzsche said something like, "As soon as I've written it down it's dead in my heart," but I ... can't find the quote, so perhaps I am confabulating. In any event, I agree that the quest is sometimes more more engaging than the result. But what do you think of the opposite disease? For me this is that, as soon as I have written something, I find myself continuing to develop and revise it, and then keep on some more, and then some more. It's often a relief to send it off to whomever it should be sent off to, because then I can get on with something else."
This Nietzsche semi-quote sent me on a similarly fruitless quest for a Susan Sontag quote about how very many times she would rewrite essays. Although I did not find the quote I had imagined (At best, I found the frequently cited lines: “I do not write easily or rapidly. My first draft has only a few elements worth keeping.”), I did find a fascinating interview with the writer James Marcus, in which Sontag called herself a “compulsive, or let's say fanatical, reviser.”
"But that's the whole point of those essays," I suggest. [This is Marcus, interviewing Sontag] "The reader gets to watch you thinking through the ideas, rather than simply delivering them in prefabricated form.
"They're certainly idea-driven," she agrees, "in the sense that the subject is always a pretext. If I wrote about something, it was really to enable me to write about something else. Take this piece I'm doing on Sebald. My problem with his new book is that I just love it--I don't have any ideas about it. I'll find some ideas about it if it kills me." She breaks into laughter and fiddles briefly with her black frame glasses. "But my enthusiasm for his work doesn't really have a discursive quality. So that's rather alien to me, writing about something without having some idea that I can actually fold the work back into."
Marcus points out that non-discursive writing is hardly that alien to Sontag, given her prolific writing of fiction, and this is where her comments may be most interesting for our purposes.
"Of course I rewrite the fiction, too," she says, "but it's about 80 percent there the first time through. And even while I'm revising, it does feel like I'm taking something down. The story has the quality of a real history to which I need to be true, and which I can change only with a great deal of trepidation. I know it sounds totally wacky, but writing fiction does strike me as a kind of performance, or transcription, of some preexisting reality."
And in another, earlier interview (with Wendy Lesser, from Conversations with Susan Sontag, p.193), she further describes a fascinating difference in the way she considers writing essays and fiction:
"The fact that I may have other ideas now doesn’t make me want to alter an old essay. At most, it might make me want to write another essay. But the novels and stories are not part of an ongoing argument but objects, language—whose flaws, when I perceive them, torment me."
I am captivated by these insights about the difference between, on the one hand, discursive writing about ideas that can be exhaustively revised and revisited with new writing and, on the other hand, exploratory writing capturing a pre-existing fictive reality
—that can be gotten right. So Keith, perhaps those of us compulsive editors ought take a break sometimes, giving in to the trepidation related to tampering with that pre-existing fictive reality and striving occasionally toward just getting it right. (She said, resisting revisionat least after the first several times through.)

Wendy Lesser and Susan Sontag. (1995). Conversations with Susan Sontag, ed. Leland Poague. University Press of Mississippi.

James Marcus and Susan Sontag. (2000). Has fiction ruined Susan Sontag? Desperately Seeking Susan: A 2000 Conversation with Susan Sontag.

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