The View From 80: Looking Back at Writing, Editing, and Life

Doris Grumbach.

From The Pleasure of Their Company, written by Doris Grumbach as she was turning 80. It was her last book: On July 12, she will be 100.

John Ruskin wrote: “The great thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and to tell what it saw in a plain way. . . To see clearly is poetry, philosophy and religion all in one.” And I suppose, if I were presumptuous, I would add: “to tell it plainly is good writing.”

For me rewriting is a process of reduction, an adoption of the “lessness” of the material. In The Periodic Table Primo Levi describes it well, although he was writing about a chemical process in which he was engaged:

“Distillation is beautiful. First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic and silent occupation. . .it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to vapor (invisible), and from this one again to liquid; but in this double journey, up and down, purity is attained. . .from imperfect material you obtain the essence, the usia, the spirit.”

I was astonished to read in the Times Sunday magazine the effect that famed editor Gordon Lish had on the early work of even more famous minimalist writer Raymond Carver. At the Lilly Archives a literary researcher named D.T. Max studied manuscripts of Carver stories. He found they were covered with large slash marks almost cutting some stories in half, and inserts that changed the order of sentences, paragraphs, etc. Whole sentences and paragraphs were excised, or sentences transferred to other places in the story.

The effect of such severe editing was to sharpen, even change, the force of the stories. Since Raymond Carver’s reputation rested on these stories (he was regarded as the first minimalist) it appeared that Lish was almost a collaborator in his work, even, in some cases, its dominant partner.

What could one make of all this? Gordon Lish is known as a difficult man, highly opinionated about fiction, and usually treating with scorn any prose style except his own pared-down, less-is-far-better preference. After leaving Knopf, he held classes at Columbia University, ousting decorative writers by his derisive comments about their work. Some left, embittered and furious.

Raymond Carver never acknowledged Lish’s strong role in his work. But he placed all his manuscripts in a library where they would be available to the public. It was as if he were willing for the truth to be known after his death, a posthumous tribute to the editor who was responsible for his achievement.

The other day I picked up a mystery by Michael Innis, and read enough to see that The Daffodil Affair was about a multiple personality heroine named Lucy. Such characters seemed to fascinate writers: I recall a book on the best-seller list at one time called Sybil about just such as person. Every now and then there appears a semi-scholarly news story about a criminal (always a woman, it seems) whose defense is that she possesses twelve or so personalities, one of which is murderous.

I left Lucy on the bookstore shelf, but I went on thinking about the phenomenon. Isn’t it true that we all are Lucys and Sybils, conglomerates of many persons, most of them private, hidden, and disguised—the frightened self, the envious, untidy, ambitious, egotistic, selfish, greedy, distrustful, cold-hearted selves, and the visible public persons—honest, kindly, humorous, good-natured, self-deprecating, lovable. None of these is dominant, no one adjective could wholly describe the person. All of them are separate entities, warring for control, in one person.

Perhaps this is why some biographers have so much trouble bringing to life on the page the subjects who were complex enough to command their attention in the first place.  Or more likely, researchers originally thought their subjects one person, the well-known public one, when they started their work, only, to their dismay, to find they had to deal with all the others.

Every morning I had been using Thomas Merton’s prayer from Thoughts in Solitude to start my hour of meditation. It begins: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. . . .”

I like this prayer, I trusted it, because it is full of my own doubts and uncertainty. The force of its negatives is better than the bland assurances, the mindless certainties of most prayers. . . .How do they know, how do I, or Merton, know, what God wants.

Anatole Broyard, who ended his career as a regular book reviewer for the New York Times, once had a bookstore. . . .He said, “Pricing an out-of-print book is one of the most poignant forms of criticism.”

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