The multi-part series “Hemingway” by Ken Burns was required viewing in my household. I was glad to learn he wrote every morning, liked learning that not every story he wrote worked, and listened carefully to how he incorporated material and people from his life. But I especially liked getting a look at his edited pages. Unfortunately, even on pause I couldn’t get close enough to read what he crossed out and revised.
Some years ago I was able to see an edited page by F. Scott Fitzgerald, where he changed two words. Two words? I had to believe that the page on view was close to the final edit, and not the first draft.
Hemingway’s edited pages grabbed my imagination because I have a suspicion that any page of mine that isn’t heavily edited isn’t finished, and is not worth reading. Over the years I’ve always wanted to write a perfect paragraph and then another and then another after that and on to the end of the story. But it has never happened. During a workshop years ago the leader asked us to write one perfect paragraph, which I did. It was so good in her view that she sought me out afterwards to talk. I still have the paragraph—unattached to anything else. Any effort to try to use it as the opening of a story has failed miserably. After literally decades, it sits “perfect” in its own little world. I don’t know why, but I suspect it is because the emphasis was on the writing and not the story. The character, whose presence is limited, goes nowhere because the paragraph isn’t about her. It’s about writing.
Every story I write, short or long, seems fabulous as I write it. Then I finish it and read it over, and conclude that it is unarguably horrible. So begins the rewrite. By the time I’m finished I’ve been through ten or more drafts and I’m still not confident that I’m really finished, but it seems time so I send it out. I confess to a tendency to send out a story too soon, but it gets it off my desk and makes me think about it. When it is rejected, as is most likely, I reread it and figure out a better ending. Endings are a trial for me, but if given sufficient time to think about whatever one I’ve settled on, I can generally improve it. I have greater confidence then, after messing with the thing for a couple of months, and send it out again. This can go on for quite a while, but each time the story gets better.
I tried to explain this once at a library talk. People nodded—they’re invariably polite at these events. But then I pulled out the edited pages—several versions—of the first chapter of the mystery I was currently working on so people could see what an edited page looked like. Their eyes popped open. They got it.
No story of mine is going to work unless it is revised and rewritten almost a dozen times. And after watching “Hemingway,” I’m glad to know I’m not alone among writers.