On writing: The wounds of revision




Do writers read other writers when they’re working on their novels?

Some avoid it — they’ll tell you that they don’t want another writer’s voice to infect theirs.  But there’s another group that doesn’t worry about getting infected  — in fact, they welcome it.

Willa Cather liked to read from the Bible’s King James Version before beginning her own work; Norman Mailer wrote a preface that described how he’d  dip into the pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace before working on his own mammoth book of war, The Naked and the Dead.  And then there’s the following remark from Zadie Smith (White Teeth, On Beauty), which I stumbled on recently.

“My writing desk is covered in open novels,” Smith says in her 2009 collection Changing My Mind.  She reads novels as she writes her own books


…to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigor when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight.


Reading others, for Smith, doesn’t smother her own voice.  Instead, she considers it a palate cleanser, an inspiration and a reminder, even a centering exercise if she feels that she’s not striking the sensibility that she wants.

For me, it’s been something else as well: a healing factor.

Why?  Because revising a novel is very disruptive to the original draft — sometimes, yes, the grafting of new material feels remarkably organic; but at other times, as I’ve recently found, it can be very traumatic, painful.  The insertion of new material cuts deeply into the original narrative’s fibers.  The new material pulses like a fresh angry wound, shouts for attention, itches and tingles, while the rest of the story line continues on in its tested, measured, quieter rhythms.  The lack of harmony between the parts can be unbearable.



I spent a great deal of time, and mental anguish, trying to reconcile a discordant new section of my novel with the other parts.

The tone of the new section felt different; its perspective was different.  But I couldn’t help that.  I’m sure you understand what I mean, my dear friends.  When sections of a novel are created at different times, many months apart, then they’ve really been written by two different writers.  The passing of time changes a writer, even if that person looks the same in the mirror.

waterworks coverWhat helped me with the difficulties of the new section was a decision to swim, as Zadie Smith nicely puts it, in the sensibility of someone else’s story.  In my case, E.L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks.

My novel is set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — there are plenty of supernatural twists and mysteries, plenty of things to classify as “the fantastic.”  And the best tone for treating such things, I’ve found, is a calm, restrained one–when things are surprising enough, having a surprising tone doesn’t work.  The opposite is better.

Even though I understood that, I couldn’t do it.  I had trouble finding the proper angle and restraint, that muted tone of slight bemusement, for this late addition to my book, which involves an eccentric bit of literary scholarship.

Until I went back to The Waterworks.  

Doctorow’s novel treats a premise that, in another writer’s hands, would have become a breathless sci-fi story.  What he provides is a measure of elegance and restraint that keeps his premise squarely tethered to the ground.  The tone of his book is something difficult to fully describe — only that I found, once I’d swum in those waters, that I understood what I needed to do.

My friends, what books have healed your own writing and why?  Let’s have a conversation once you come up for air.



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9 thoughts on “On writing: The wounds of revision

  1. I have several books in my writing space, too. Some novels – although I’m writing a memoir – and some nonfiction. I read when I need to relax my head; I read when I need to understand how to describe a character; I read when I need nonfiction information. In an earlier response, I said I was reading The Mandarins and later, The Alexandra Quartet. I write a lot of narrative because my character, me in this case, is essentially a loner who learns on her own. But the above books, which also have a lot of narrative, showed me patterns for paragraphs that could contain narrative and action and dialogue. Durrell, especially, is a master of sketching character habits/actions in narrative with inserted short dialogue. (I’m also on the fifth incarnation of this material, so in a sense, I’m revising all the time.)

  2. Sounds like you’re perfectly aligned with Zadie Smith and the others I mentioned. Reading others is a definite help. You’re on a fifth version of your memoir? I find it hard to know where one draft ends and another begins. Do you find yourself adding more material or mainly refining what you already have?

  3. You are so right, but I have no air right now. So I will put this in the back of my mind and write about it when I can. I’m glad you found your mentor text. A world of difference.

  4. Nick, what a lovely post. I read incessantly all genres and happily carry forward a couple of novels at once, as a minimum! I haven’t had time to write lately, but even when I did, I never deliberately kept books at a distance. We all write because we love to read. Writing and reading are like two twins, similar but yet different. No twin would feel complete without the other. And just to raise the drama up a notch, would a mother ever choose between her children?? Let the occasional alignment with other authors’ styles roll. A couple of paragraphs quietly walk out of sync with the rest of the narrative. ‘I don’t mind’, is what I say! Ah, the passionate heart of blogging never ceases to beat!

    All the best,


  5. And whilst I’m here, I LOVE Zadie Smith! Since White Teeth was published I have kept a close eye on her new releases. Let us all give ourselves a break: Zadie – the golden lady herself – wrestled with a touch of writer’s block a few years back, which if memory serves she explored at a writers’ retreat in Tuscany. Now, that’s food for thought…and an excuse for an intellectually invigorating holiday!

  6. Writing and reading as twins — I love that metaphor, OG&B. It really does make sense. I’m not sure how some people can shun all reading while they write — there’s an egotism there that doesn’t make sense to me either. If one’s voice occasionally aligns with others, just as you said, or walks out of sync with the rest of the book, does it matter?

    I didn’t realize Smith had a block — thanks for that info. I will see what she’s written (if anything) about it: I’m interested in what other writers say about the process.

  7. Yes, yes, yes! I’ve got a post going up tomorrow, highlighting the article from the NYTimes magazine about the Christie’s book auction to benefit the PEN American Center. One of the books being auctioned is Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” Her marginalia includes a note that one of the book’s characters (Rhea) channeled too much Junie B. Jones, because she had read “dozens” of the books to her sons just before starting to write from Rhea’s POV. She said that the character was “influence too much in its early stages.” So it sounds like she was using that voice as a jumping off point. Not a bad thing.

    In my own work, I’m really fascinated by the work of Dan Chaon. And it’s interesting that in reading a recent collection by Tom Barbash (“Stay Up With Me” 2013), I found a very heavy Chaon influence in his work—including the title that parallels Chaon’s recent collection, “Stay Awake” (2012). Then I read the acknowledgements and found that the two are very good friends. Hmmmm. Chaon came first, and although I really enjoyed Barbash’s collection, I’m more inclined to return to Chaon’s work.

    From what I can tell, authors are all over the map on this. Some like to read books that will directly influence how they want to write at the moment, others read nonfiction or poetry to keep themselves as far away from being influenced by stylistic choices as possible. I think it can also depend on the particular manuscript and what it needs.

    I do think it’s important to study those who are doing the exact thing we want to do well. Good writers borrow, great writers steal, as they say.

  8. Chaon — you’ve definitely made me very curious about him. Your posts have been terrific about him.

    I agree that it’s not dishonorable to steal from other writers … in fact, as long as we’re talking about stealing, I’m probably going to reblog your Egan post…. 🙂

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