The sublime art of revision

HE took me down, this custodian of scribbled treasures, to the subterranean passages beneath the library. There we walked past stack after stack of warehoused letters and notebooks - the papers of writers from Pope to Wolfe, from Emerson to Joyce - until we came to a small box, looking like someone's modest Christmas present. Carefully, he opened the box, unwrapped the paper covering, and handed me a small, leatherish-looking sort of diary. This one had belonged to the great-aunt of Joseph Conrad and had come into his possession when she died.

I leafed through the pages, noting with mild interest the even penmanship and vacant contents, when suddenly, midway in the volume, I came upon a messy, pencil-written passage labeled ``Tuan Jim: A sketch.'' A roll of distant thunder crashed somewhere in my mind. There, page after page, in a loose, untidy hand, followed the first draft of Conrad's novel, ``Lord Jim,'' which he had jotted down in the unused pages of his relative's diary.

Conrad had always been to me a mythic figure, like every god of literature, beyond all knowing in any human sense. I had seen him as one sees the moon when it lies near the horizon - through a magnifying lens of atmospheres.

The remove, however, shattered as I confronted this notebook. Eagerly I turned the pages, observing all scribbled additions, hasty scratchings out. I met Conrad the man and the writer, busy with his craft; and I knew all over again that I had to be a writer.

Later, when I came back to Houghton Library at Harvard and revisited the stacks, I had similar encounters with Emerson, Shelley, Pope, Wolfe, Joyce, James. The notebooks of writers, artists, and other thinkers gave me a place to find the messy underworld that revealed more than the polished surface of a work of art. From them I extracted some small truths about writing and a sense of what the whole process means.

Writing is rewriting, observed Vladimir Nabokov, who destroyed all interim stages of his work and left only a highly wrought public profile. He was a private man. And it makes sense that he kept his thought process to himself. Because this process reveals something more personal and telling than the work of art itself. In a single line, a writer like Alexander Pope can crystallize a truth for generations of readers. But in a single revision of his original thought about that line, he can tell a truth about himself and his own struggles for understanding.

Perhaps the most famous line from Pope's ``Essay on Man,'' for instance, refers to man as ``A mighty maze! But not without a plan.'' But the original notebook in which the essay was penned first reads, ``A mighty maze of walks without a plan.'' There on the page, you can see how Pope crossed out two words, added an exclamation mark and a conjunction, and completely changed his meaning - and came up with a monument of 19th-century thought. The fact is that both statements are true. Looking into the forward lens of the blank page, man and the writer are ``a mighty maze of walks without a plan''; then, in the backward-looking mirror of the completed notebooks, one can see ``A mighty maze! But not without a plan.''

But how does the plan fashion itself? How does the artist emerge from the mighty maze? What happened to him in the process? Was he changing as he wrote? What was he creating in himself as he worked on the objectified structures of his own fluid imaginings? These questions posed and answered and reposed themselves as I looked through the notebooks. Somehow, the contact with the original materials gave insights into the moments of insight and hours of labor with which great literary and artistic characters were fashioned.

Thomas Wolfe standing at the refrigerator in his Brooklyn apartment, using it as a desk, scribbling page after page in pencil of a vast, amorphous manuscript he would deliver by the crate to the great editor Maxwell Perkins. And there in the pages an occasional note to himself to remember something about a character. You would read it and feel you had brushed against his shoulder as the idea came into his head and he said, ``Yes, better write that down.''

Or Emerson, writing down in precise detail the movements of small birds he encountered during a walk on a snowy day ... and reminding himself to bring food for them. Only pages away, he's jotting down a quotation from Thoreau - ``Life will in man new grace reveal/ The gleam which labor adds to steel'' - in his honest, open scrawl.

The handwritten record in every case shows a writer committing himself to paper. It was one line of attack. Maybe he or she went back and revised. But still, the train of thought was carried out in a relentless, direct line.

Looking through Conrad's scrawled sketch for ``Lord Jim,'' you see how he stubbornly kept at the business of making his intuitions tangible - Conrad, who worked in English as a second language, which he came to late in life, hammering away at it, coaxing it, revering it. The narrative fumbles its way along with clumsy lapses and loss of direction. He trudges through the early stages, following what must have been a vaguely formulated plan. Whole pages are scratched out, then retold more clearly, getting closer to the image in his mind.

So Conrad left behind this small volume, this scrap of evidence that he struggled over each sentence and every word, at the same time he labored on the grand scheme of a thing. For him, that was writing. And so it was, apparently, for all these others whose labors rest in these vaults. You see them going back over their train of thought, revising it word by word. And in the process you see something else happening.

You see them rethinking themselves.

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