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On the Modernist Roots of Revision

As discussed this week at workshop, some scholars believe our current beliefs about the importance and necessary depth of revision derive from the practices of Modernist authors at the turn of the century in conjunction with one very significant invention: the typewriter. Below is an excerpt of Craig Fehrman’s fascinating article for the Boston Globe discussing Hannah Sullivan’s new book, The Work of Revision, and the evolution of the writing process throughout history:

“It’s easy to assume that history’s greatest authors have been history’s greatest revisers. But that wasn’t always how it worked. Until about a century ago, according to various biographers and critics, literature proceeded through handwritten manuscripts that underwent mostly small-scale revisions.

Then something changed. In a new book, “The Work of Revision,” Hannah Sullivan, an English professor at Oxford University, argues that revision as we now understand it—where authors, before they publish anything, will spend weeks tearing it down and putting it back together again—is a creation of the 20th century. It was only under Modernist luminaries like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf that the practice came to seem truly essential to creating good literature. Those authors, Sullivan writes, were the first who “revised overtly, passionately, and at many points in the lifespan of their texts.”

What caused these writers to put their faith in revision as the key to good literature? In part, it was the philosophy of Modernism—the idea that a novel or poem should challenge the reader, break with tradition, and, in the words of Pound, “Make it new.” But Sullivan, who belongs to a new wave of scholars trying to understand literature through the physical and historical realities of its creation, finds that our value of revision was also driven by something else: the typewriter.

It might seem strange to think that we owe the high style of Modernism—and the notion that even a book titled “Dad is Fat” requires strenuous reworking—to a machine. But “The Work of Revision” makes a case that what we write often comes down to how we write. Careful revision isn’t automatic or even automatically useful. And that means, as our technology changes once again, that literary style may already be undergoing another transformation.” — Craig Fehrman, “Revising your writing again? Blame the Modernists,” 30 June 2013.

Follow the link above to enjoy the rest of the article–which goes into greater detail about the typewriter’s impact on the writing/revising process and reveals the revision practices of some of our most beloved authors–over at the Boston Globe.

Do you have a revision ritual or writing process that works for you? Strange habits that help you create? We want to hear from you, so please share in the comments below! 

‘The Art of the Final Sentence’ via The Millions

“For writers, the last sentences aren’t about reader responsibility at all — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop worrying about what comes next, because nothing does. No more keeping the reader interested, no more wariness over giving the game away. This is the best time for a writer to get real, to depict reality as they see it, without compromises, without fear.”
                           – Jonathan Russell Clark
Read the rest of Jonathan Russell Clark’s “The Art of the Final Sentence” at The Millions, and be sure to check out other essays in Clark’s “The Art of…” series, perhaps “The Art of the Opening Sentence” for the sake of balance.
What’s your favorite final sentence?


Leo Tolstoy on, well, everything…

Leo Tolstoy’s Theory of Everything, via

Leo Tolstoy's theory of everything

Leo Tolstoy (Credit: Wikimedia)

excerpts from ‘Who, What Am I?’: Tolstoy Struggles to Narrate the Self:


“Beginning in 1850, the time scheme of Tolstoy’s “Journal of Daily Occupations” and the moral accounting of the Franklin journal were incorporated into a single narrative. Each day’s entry was written from the reference point of yesterday’s entry, which ended with a detailed schedule for the next day—under tomorrow’s date. In the evening of the next day, Tolstoy reviewed what he had actually done, comparing his use of time to the plan made the previous day. He also commented on his actions, evaluating his conduct on a general scale of moral values. The entry concluded with a plan of action and a schedule for yet another day. The following entry (from March 1851) is typical for the early to mid-1850s:

24. Arose somewhat late and read, but did not have time to write. Poiret came, I fenced, and did not send him away (sloth and cowardice). Ivanov came, I spoke with him for too long (cowardice). Koloshin (Sergei) came to drink vodka, I did not escort him out (cowardice). At Ozerov’s argued about nothing (habit of arguing) and did not talk about what I should have talked about (cowardice). Did not go to Beklemishev’s (weakness of energy). During gymnastics did not walk the rope (cowardice), and did not do one thing because it hurt (sissiness).—At Gorchakov’s lied (lying). Went to the Novotroitsk tavern (lack of fierté). At home did not study English (insufficient firmness). At the Volkonskys’ was unnatural and distracted, and stayed until one in the morning (distractedness, desire to show off, and weakness of character). 25. [This is a plan for the next day, the 25th, written on the 24th—I.P.] From 10 to 11 yesterday’s diary and to read. From 11 to 12—gymnastics. From 12 to 1—English. Beklemishev and Beyer from 1 to 2. From 2 to 4—on horseback. From 4 to 6—dinner. From 6 to 8—to read. From 8 to 10—to write.—To translate something from a foreign language into Russian to develop memory and style.—To write today with all the impressions and thoughts it gives rise to.—25. Awoke late out of sloth. Wrote my diary and did gymnastics, hurrying. Did not study English out of sloth. With Begichev and with Islavin was vain. At Beklemishev’s was cowardly and lack of fierté. On Tver Boulevardwanted to show off. I did not walk on foot to the Kalymazhnyi Dvor (sissiness). Rode with a desire to show off. For the same reason rode to Ozerov’s.—Did not return to Kalymazhnyi, thoughtlessness. At the Gorchakovs’ dissembled and did not call things by their names, fooling myself. Went to L’vov’s out of insufficient energy and the habit of doing nothing. Sat around at home out of absentmindedness and read Werther inattentively, hurrying. 26 [This is a plan for the next day, the 26th, written on the 25th—I.P.] To get up at 5. Until 10—to write the history of this day. From 10 to 12—fencing and to read. From 12 to 1—English, and if something interferes, then in the evening. From 1 to 3—walking, until 4—gymnastics. From 4 to 6, dinner—to read and write.— (46:55).

An account of the present as much as a plan for the future, this diary combines the prescriptive and the descriptive. In the evening of each day, the young Tolstoy reads the present as a failure to live up to the expectations of the past, and he anticipates a future that will embody his vision of a perfect self. The next day, he again records what went wrong today with yesterday’s tomorrow. Wanting reality to live up to his moral ideal, he forces the past to meet the future.

In his attempt to create an ordered account of time, and thus a moral order, Tolstoy’s greatest difficulty remains capturing the present. Indeed, today makes its first appearance in the diary as tomorrow, embedded in the previous day and usually expressed in infinitive verb forms (“to read,” “to write,” “to translate”). On the evening of today, when Tolstoy writes his diary, today is already the past, told in the past tense. His daily account ends with a vision of another tomorrow. Since it appears under tomorrow’s date, it masquerades as today, but the infinitive forms of the verbs suggest timelessness.

In the diaries, unlike in the “Journal of Daily Occupations,” the present is accorded a place, but it is deprived of even a semblance of autonomy: The present is a space where the past and the future overlap. It appears that the narrative order of the diary simply does not allow one to account for the present. The adolescent Tolstoy’s papers contain the following excerpt, identified by the commentators of Tolstoy’s complete works as a “language exercise”: “Le passé est ce qui fut, le futur est ce qui sera et le présent est ce qui n’est pas.—C’est pour cela que la vie de l’homme ne consiste que dans le futur et le passé et c’est pour la même raison que le bonheur que nous voulons posséder n’est qu’une chimère de même que le présent” (1:217).  (The past is that which was, the future is that which will be, and the present is that which is not. That is why the life of man consists in nothing but the future and the past, and it is for the same reason that the happiness we want to possess is nothing but a chimera, just as the present is.) Whether he knew it or not, the problem that troubled the young Tolstoy, as expressed in this language exercise, was a common one, and it had a long history.”

Read the rest at…

Friday Free-Write: The FitBit Chronicles

Itching to fill your new Moleskine with words words words? Get started with the first of our Friday Free-Write series prompts involving your mysterious experiences with a FitBit…

#WriteAway: You fall asleep wearing a FitBit bracelet, the kind that tracks your movement. You wake up only to discover that, apparently, you walked  3,672 steps… 

Where has your FitBit taken you in the night? Or did you ever really leave?

Go ahead and get carried away!