Reach for an L Instead of a Pill

There was an ad for cigarettes, relying on at vanity: Reach for a Lucky instead of a Sweet. Yesterday I told L all about my anxiety about working on my book. I mean, I tell him about most of my anxieties but hadn't told him just how terrible I'd been feeling, worrying about revising my book and also about buying this house. He told me that I always get like this before a big deadline. It always helps when he tells me things like this. Then it means that the horrible feeling will end. And it did. So I didn't need to take an Ativan.

Today I decided to go over two theses I needed to for thesis meetings on Saturday. I thought after going through student work I'd feel eager to go back to my own. I made it through one and half theses. The second one contains stories I've read about five times, in different versions, and instead of being sick of them, I felt comforted in their familiarity. I keep searching for the right simile for this experience, or analogy. I feel that each time a person reads a story, the reader re-animates the characters, takes them off the shelf, turns the key in the back of the toy. Adds water to sea-monkey packet. And when you read a story for the nth time, everything in it is just etched a little deeper in your brain, joining the other images you had stored there from when you read the story before. Maybe what I mean is that everything you read in the past becomes a memory, and when you read the story again, the images and characters you imagine in the present join up with your memories of the images and characters, and the story seems more real because of the memories. And to complicate it all, there are the ghosts of the past drafts, hovering, shadowy--the roads the writer took and back-tracked. As they say, Don't think of a white bear.

I was going through the theses in the Little Cafe, and I wanted to take a break, so I reached for one of the New Yorkers I'd donated to the cafe in order to clear out my house. I read an article about the changes Gordon Lish made to Raymond Carver's stories. I assume this is old news for everyone who reads their New Yorkers when they arrive. Or for anyone who read D.T. Max's article in the New York Times in 1998. So then I read "Beginners" in the New Yorker, which became "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." A few hours later I read the latter, which Lish had shortened very much. Of course the shadow of the longer story was in my head as I read the shorter version. I was wondering about the best way to present the two versions to a fiction class. (People have long compared two versions of Carver's story "Cathedral.") Do you have the students read the uncut story first or the shorter version? Maybe have half the class read the shorter first, and the other half, the opposite. And have them debate which is better.

Carver wrote to Lish in panic and distress, telling him not to publish his collection as Lish had edited it, because so many people had read his drafts and would realize how much Lish shaped his work. A couple of days later he was mollified, presumably after talking on the phone with Lish.

Carver has been dead 20 years. Lish is still alive. In a thesis meeting last week a student reminded me that I'd written the punchline at the end of a paragraph. I didn't remember suggesting it. But I thought it was funny.

I still cringe when I think about an edit I did in fifth or sixth grade. We had a class newspaper paper and a guy named Bert Parker wrote a paragraph about guns or hunting and said something would be painful. I inserted "excruciatingly."

3 comments:

Bradley said...

I've thought about teaching the two versions of "What We Talk About..." too-- although I really don't like the version that appeared in the New Yorker much at all. I think if I ever do teach the two stories, I'll do it early in the semester, teaching what I consider the "real" version (that is to say, the "Lish edit") first, followed by the recently-published version that Tess Gallagher seems to prefer. This, I hope, would lead to a discussion about how valuable editors can be, and why it's sometimes important-- for the good of the story-- for writers to abandon their egos and accept the type of criticism that will make a story better.

Hope all is well with you.

Writer said...

That's funny. I like the New Yorker version better. I think it explores the notion of love more. I'm thinking of using another story in the same New Yorker, by Somebody Enright, in the voice of a teen. It's hard to write a good first-person story from the POV of a young person, and I think this is done well.
--c. bitch

prowlerneedsajump said...

If any master from the past chose to develop the role of memory in the re-reading of stories, especially one's own, it would have been Marcel Proust. Memory isn't a passive database to be searched, but it is difficult to verbalize what it does. Perhaps that's why neuro- and cognitive scientists reference Proust so often.