Monday, September 14, 2009

Tinkering Toward That Elusive Perfection

'I have rewritten--often several times--every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.'
--the late Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov.


At 10:27 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I know a lot of people revere Nabokov more than I do—I respect him greatly, but in no way do I agree with so many literary types who view his books as among the best of the past century (one has to wonder sometimes if people keep praising "Lolita" for extra-literary reasons, if there isn't a bit of a hidden agenda there)—and I know that lots of writers agree with him here.

BUt what this brings to my mind is that critical threshold wherein too much tinkering can also kill all the life that was in the initial draft of a piece. Maybe Nabokov was able to evade this, in his thousands of rewrites; maybe he really was that kind of genius.

I also sort of feel like I'll be in the minority on this point, in my belief that once an artist has gotten to a certain point, learned to trust themselves enough, trust their instincts, that over-revision is no longer necessary. But then it occurs to me that Nabokov speaks for many writers who come at writing from the dominantly intellectual mode, who believe that writing (whether workmanlike or lofty) is a largely mental process. As opposed to an intuitive, or somatic one. Frankly, I see this attitude more from the craft-oriented side of the fence, which includes as many poets as journalists or novelists.

So, does this remark come from the craft bias that many writers have? Many smart people, myself included, are unable to evade the trap of thinking that they can think their way through every problem, that everything IS a problem that can be solved. That if I just think through it enough times, I'll get it right. That's what I wonder if Nabokov was saying.

Unfortunately, there are many problems that can't be solved rationally or intellectually, because there are many experiences in which the intellect is not the dominant mode of being. Being smart doesn't help when you have deep psychological problems or emotional situations. Grief, for example. I watched the movie "Milk" last night, and that bit of history is not something anyone could THINK their way through to a better conclusion; because the overruling forces of hate and fear make thinking impossible for many people, a lot of the time.

So I find this comment by Nabokov to be entertaining but useless to me. It doesn't relate to my own artistic process much at all. I do more listening than rethinking.

At 1:06 PM, Anonymous Donna said...

I'm with you, Art. I think good writing comes naturally. Trying too hard with writing is like trying too hard with anything. You are at risk of losing yourself.

At 2:54 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Art, we've had this conversation before, so I won't repeat myself there. I half agree with you on all this. As for your suggestion about Lolita being the source of some or much of his outsized reputation, you're completely right there. But it's not only the fact that people respond to him on a prurient level, but he's also come to represent (rightly so, I think) the same kind of stubborn artistic refusal to back down against mid-century American puritanism that comedian Lenny Bruce was celebrated for.

But none of that is really why I find him so interesting, and this reason could also be the source of some of the reverence for him in this country: the fact that he wrote so damn well in a language that wasn't even his native tongue. Not many people could grow up speaking, reading and writing in Russian, and later come to use the English language in such a supple way as he did. Writing purists will always hold him in high regard for that fact alone.

At 4:41 PM, Blogger Mariana Soffer said...

Great quote, I guess what he says is a good thing for a writer

At 4:52 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I think so Mariana, but that opinion is hardly unanimous among writers, as our commenters have nicely articulated.Thanks for adding your thoughts.

At 8:49 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Valid points, John.

On the Lenny Bruce Argument with regard to Nabokov, I think you're probably right on target. I don't think we can underrate this aspect of Nabokov's life, and I think in some ways it's far more important that he never compromised about his art, than what he actually wrote. In this sense, I do revere him. I just have trouble reconciling this with not being all that impressed with his prose. It could be another case where extra-literary issues cloud peoples' judgments about the literature per se.

With regard to the non-native artisan writing well in his adopted tongue, you're right that writing purists will always hold him in high esteem for that—but that also may be why he had to revise so heavily, too.

I can say, having written a few minor poems in other languages that I was once moderately fluent in, that writing in another language is like writing in another universe. It's completely different from writing in one's native tongue then self-translating. (Beckett did both of these, too.) In one of those other languages, Indonesian, Chairil Anwar remains a favorite poet of mine. Each language that I've learned has one or two things in it that cannot be translated very easily, if at all—we can call them native or idiomatic concepts, or ways of seeing the universe that are structured by the language in which they've formed. Languages and cosmic structures not universal, they're particular and local. When I would write a poem in Indonesian, I was well aware that I was not writing at all like in English; some of that was that I wasn't as fluent in the one as in the other, but some of it was also a search for an idiomatic turn of phrase.

All of this I think speaks to Nabakov's quote, I think, in your sense of how impressive a feat it was for him to write so well in English. In which case, I view the quote as quite appropriate as a method for a writer writing not in his or her native tongue, but in an adopted one. (I can think of other examples, too.) So, in that case, right on, Vlad!

But that begs the question: Write so well in comparison to who? Certainly much better than Norman Mailer. But better than Gertrude Stein or Ernest Hemingway or Beckett? That's highly debatable.

I don't mean to put Nabokov down, truly I do not mean to do that. I am just trying to find a way into this comment on his part, because it is so completely alien to my own experience.

I was once accused by another poet who I've had this same discussion with, of having so fully absorbed the "rules of grammar for English" in my youth, or somewhere, that I am not aware of following them. His point was that I de-emphasized craft because my craft was already so good.

Well, I'm still not convinced. I'm willing to stipulate that he might have been right about me. But I have no memory of studying or absorbing the craft of writing in my youth. I seem to have known this stuff. I never formally studied it, and I don't know the technical terms used in grammar and syntax study. So where did it come from? I have no idea. I do not believe in innate language structuralism, that whole Chomskyian deep structure to language; in my opinion, that's been adequately disproved. The only thing I can surmise is that people who seem to use language well, whether in their native tongues or in an adopted tongue, may have an innate knack for pattern-recognition and pattern-formation. Syntax and grammar are all about normative patterns and structures. The problem with making judgments about the quality of the writing is in part that we are presupposing a normative quasi-Platonic ideal for language patterns that is neither normal nor existent.

Thanks for the instigation to think this all through, once again.

At 9:01 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Now that you mention it (a true aha! moment for me) that quote of his is completely related to the fact that he was struggling with an adopted language. It seems obvious now, though only after you made the connection.

At 8:50 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

A late insight, later:

You probably know that I actually agree with you, John, about the balance between craft and inspiration: how craft is necessary for saying things the best way one can say; and also how having something to say is essential, since all the craft in the word is hollow if there's nothing to say. (Yes, we've had the discussion before, and I don't think we're really in opposition on most points.)

But this statement from Nabokov is such an extreme statement! I think I reacted to the quote so strongly because it's such an extreme statement of the truth of revision. He is right, in essence, with the general principle, but his statement is extreme, perhaps, because of the aspect of writing in his adopted tongue, as we've discussed. So I don't think it can be literally true and useful for many other writers.

I've gotten a lot of good clarifications from thinking this through. Thanks for making it happen.

At 9:44 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Yes indeed, Art, we have explored this subject several times, and each time we return to it I understand your thinking even better, and as you suggest, learn that our thinking is not so far apart on it. And I too enjoy clarifying my thinking on various things by discussing it over time with smart friends. That's a wonderful privilege.

At 12:30 PM, Blogger Scott Zimmerman said...

I just discovered this wonderful blog site (found a link at Andy Birol's site)... thank you.

My dearly departed friend and mentor, Charlie "Tremendous" Jones, once told me that he sometimes would invest as much as eighteen straight hours writing (by hand) a single page for one of his books.

I often wondered if he did that for the benefit of the reader or himself...

Regardless, I do know that one of his quotes (paraphrased within a John Maxwell book titled "The Success Journey") forever shifted the direction of my life: "You are the same today as you will be in five years, except for two things: The books you read and the people you meet."

From the moment I read those words (in May of 1998), I made the decision to quit reading local newspapers, fiction-based novels and/or other "trashy" information and began filling my mind and soul with nutritional words.

I will include your excellent prose in my future readings.

Best to you along your success journey, John.

Kind regards,

Scott Michael Zimmerman

At 2:54 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Scott, what a lovely mid-afternoon triple pleasure your comment provided. First, it's always wonderful to see a new name joining the conversation via a comment. Life is so busy for all of us, and anyone who takes a moment to post a comment and acknowledge something they find here makes them golden in my book. Secondly, it's wonderful to be reminded of our mutual friend Andy Birol, who kindly linked to this site from his new blog, which I hope you'll all check out sometime (the links to both his website and blog are below). And finally, your wonderful comment about the importance of "nutritional words" suggests you've come to the right place, because that's what we're all about too, or at least try to be. Anyway, thanks so much for reading, and especially for commenting, Scott.

At 12:04 PM, Blogger Scott Zimmerman said...

You're more than welcomed, John.

I'm new to the blogging world and would welcomed your seasoned eyes and insightful criticisms to help improve my new blog:

Your feedback would be greatly appreciated!

With appreciation,


At 12:17 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Good for you, Scott. I've just broken the comment seal on your new venture and left a welcome greeting. I hope other readers might follow the link and do the same. And I've also just sent you an invitation to connect on Linkedin, Scott. Good luck.


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