Stories set in sand

Asked by the Paris Review whether he rewrote his stories, the Irish writer Frank O’Connor replied, “Endlessly, endlessly, endlessly.” He elaborated on this in his introduction to Fish For Friday, a short story collection published in 1964:*

It is true that a number of my stories have been re-written a score of times — some as many as fifty times — and re-written again and again after publication. . . . This is a great annoyance to some of my friends, particularly my publishers and editors who would prefer me to write new stories instead; I am afraid it shows a certain lack of respect for one’s own public image . . . .

The only criticism of this eccentricity, if I may so call it, that ever shook me was that of the editor of The New Yorker in which so many of these stories have appeared. He asked, ‘But can you remember the story you set out to write?’ and it is a question I still cannot answer. I believe I can remember. I believe the essence of any story can be expressed in four or five lines, but I cannot prove it.

This lack of resolution rings true for me with most kinds of writing: there is no definitive version, nor can there be. It’s not in the nature of ideas, events and our interpretations of them to settle down into final and absolute coherence. We select a representative text, a best fit from many possible forms, as carefully as insight and circumstances allow.

Even this is subject to further variation — through the reader. That the same reader might read a set text more than once is misleading, because it’s never quite the same reader reading in the same way. As Borges put it in A Note on (towards) Bernard Shaw, “A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.” Or, to adapt the old saying, you can’t step into the same book twice (hence part of the appeal of re-reading).

O’Connor (born Michael O’Donovan in 1903) was a master of the short story form. He felt that a novel was built around “the character of time, the nature of time, and the effects that time has on events and characters”; that it should create a sense of continuing life, whereas a short story need only suggest it. On confining himself to a four-line summary of his stories, he said: “If it won’t go into four, that means you haven’t reduced it to its ultimate simplicity, reduced it to the fable.”

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* Regular readers might remember this title from a bookmash several weeks ago.

11 Responses to Stories set in sand

  1. Aidan says:

    Very interesting. I am a great fan of the short story form, it can be so satisfying and you can generally consume them in one sitting which suits the modern way of living.
    Anyway, although I can see why any story can be rewritten time and again I am not sure it is such a good thing to do (except following advice of a good editor. Both the readers and writers perspective on a story change over time. A book you read when you are 18 reads quite differently when you are 38. If the writer changes the story as he grows older he might lose the essence of the first version. I don’t want to second guess one of the greatest short story writers ever but I am thinking of this from my own perspective. If I read something I wrote 20 years ago then it often reads awfully but what if I were 20 years younger? Was the story awful and I was just too young to appreciate that 20 years ago or did the story become awful because I have changed?

  2. Claudia says:

    Interesting! Maybe it’s OK to keep rewriting one’s stories. But here’s Dylan Thomas’ note in his “Collected Poems 1934-1952”. This book contains most of the poems I have written, and all, up to the present year, that I wish to preserve. Some of them I have revised a little, but if I went on revising everything that I now do not like in this book I should be so busy that I would have no time to write new poems.

    I was still young when I read this. I had a tendency to restart everything I was writing. I stopped. Now I might change one word, or correct a grammatical error, but I do not revise stories and poems. I’m such a different person today than I was years ago. When I present my old writings, I simply put the year under. I might not think this way today, but I did then. It’s difficult, at times, to connect with the pain and the dreams of the past but I’m proud to have expressed my feelings with honesty. Except for gross errors, I will not cosmetise the face that I had. To each its own, I guess.

  3. Sean Jeating says:

    Aidan writes – and I agree – that a book you read when you are 18 reads quite differently when you are 38.
    Sometimes it does so even within a couple of months: Reading Sean O’Faolain’s Lovers of the Lake for the first time to me it was one nice little story amongst many. About five years later shortly before going to ‘discover’ Ireland for three months, I re-read it and – enjoyed a bit more.
    Well, and now imagine my pleasure to re-read it again, after this agnostic had ‘made’ Lough Derg.

    Re re-writing: When it comes to writing I tend to be a perfectionist. That’s fine on one side; sometimes it’s a pest.
    Fortunately sometimes a dear friend of mine smiled at me and said: ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good.’
    And since it is at least a bit easier to accept when something I write is not “perfect” – as long as it is good. :)
    Last topic. Promised.
    For almost two decades I prefered reading short stories – for the same reason as described by Aidan, and: Especially reading anthologies offers the chance to meet many different authors. And sometimes, not seldom, one short story would be so fascinating that I wanted to read more from this author.

    Ahem … promised is promised. I did not promise though, not to come back for another comment, hm?
    Thus, perhaps, until later.

  4. Thomas says:

    I like Sean’s friend’s comment “The perfect is the enemy of the good”. Perfect makes me think of something finite, but good makes me think of something still alive with possibilities. Maybe the urge to rewrite a story is similar to that of the storyteller who never tells a story the same way twice?

  5. Stan says:

    Aidan: Many good points, thank you. I agree that it’s generally better to be done with a piece, unless the writer spots a mistake or a significant weakness, for example, or has set it aside as a work in progress. It can be difficult to commit to a final version of a text you’ve written, but you know you’ve gotten somewhere when the amendments slow to a trickle (and even eventually peter out).

    Claudia: Thanks for your thoughts and the lines by Thomas — interesting to compare his approach to O’Connor’s! It takes discipline to know when to stop re-writing, to accept what’s there and move on to the next project. Reading old writing can be difficult, as you say, but there are usually forgotten delights and amusements alongside the discomfort.

    Sean: Perfectionism is a mixed blessing, for sure. Your friend’s advice (or Voltaire’s) is excellent. I think I heard the line before but had forgotten it. Chasing perfection is a futile indulgence, and a damaging one if it leads the writer to fixate on perceived shortcomings, and undervalue the good work that has been done. I love anthologies too; they’re always good for a few surprises and new names to investigate.

    Thomas: Well said. Perfection is unhelpful, and impossible anyway; Good gives us room to move around in. There might be a connection between re-writing and the oral storytelling tradition, for some writers anyway. Often the changes between versions of a tale are just shifts in emphasis, new connections hinted at, and so on.

  6. Aidan says:

    Just on the subject of anthologies I recently read the New Internationalist publication “One World – A Global Anthology of Short Stories” and I really recommend it. I bought because Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie has a story in it but there are some really amazing stories in there by authors I did not know especially by the other Nigerian authors and one really special story by Jhumpa Lahirie that prompted me to buy everything she has published.

  7. Hoover says:

    And writing is discovery.

    By the time you’ve reached the last line, you’ve got to start it all again to include all the new stuff you’ve unearthed.

  8. Perhaps I am missing the point a bit but artists of all persuasions frequently revisit themes. An artist may paint a series of paintings, I suppose it is natural that an author will either revise a story or revisit in more than one story or novel.

  9. Claudia says:

    Jams is right about artists of all persuasions revisiting their works. Years ago, I lost a precious paperback where I had read that Beethoven wrote 3 beginnings for the 5th Symphony. And they were in that book, from Beethoven’s hand (copy, of course!). I’m trying hard to remember the book’s title. Those 4 notes are now so famous, having been used as a Victory Sign in WW2. It would be fun to see what else it could have been.

    I agree, with the comments, that everytime we reread a book, we often get a different understanding. It depends a lot on what has happened to me, and what I have learned since my first reading. I guess some writers also feel that their stories have room to grow, and they need to add new facts to what they have presented. But when should they stop correcting? I would not want one line changed in Le Petit Prince de St-Exupéry, and one note of music taken off from le Boléro de Ravel.

    P.S. As some of your visitors, I also love short stories in Anthologies. But sometimes, I’m very frustrated that people I just met and liked disappear so fast from my life. That’s why I totally enjoyed John Le Carré’s Trilogy with George Smiley and his people, and (in addition) Smiley’s goodbye in The Secret Pilgrim. Not War and Peace of course but enough pages to feel I know those people well, they became friends, and I care about their well-being.

    BTW, John Le Carré, once, threw in the garbage a full book he had just finished, and sat down to rewrite the story in a completely different manner. I could never do that. I would be afraid never to write again. Sorry for this long second comment. If I erase it, I might never offer another one! Thank you for your patience, Stan.

  10. Tim says:

    I seriously hope I don’t turn out like this. I think that short story writing is a good way for any intended novelist to start out, but if you get into the habit of re-writing endlessly, how can you expect to make that next step to a finished product?

    Perfectionism is a flaw that I’ve been trying to overcome as a writer. There is no set way of expressing the tale that you wish your readers to experience, but unless you can settle on a consistent form that you are happy with, you will be forever changing and altering as this writer did. I can imagine the frustrations of his close readers!

    Look me up when I get published. We’ll see how many iterations I will have gone through to produce a final, longer work. :p

  11. Stan says:

    Aidan: There’s the power of anthologies at work! Thanks for the recommendation.

    Hoover: That’s the tricky part — whether or not, and if so, how.

    Jams: Very true, but it seems to be more forgivable in visual and musical arts, where motifs are explored repeatedly and explicitly. Recurring themes, characters and formulas are more common in creative writing, but it doesn’t do to keep rehashing too-similar material.

    Claudia: Beethoven excelled at suspense and confounding expectation, but that melody is so familiar to us that it’s difficult to imagine what else it might have been. You need never apologise for comments, regardless of length. I always appreciate your stories and insights! I’m curious now about the book John Le Carré threw away: did he save any of it, I wonder? A paragraph or two, a line here and there?

    Tim: Yes, writing short stories is excellent practice because it’s so difficult to do it well. But like you say, it’s probably a good idea to cultivate the habit of finishing a piece instead of shying away from it in favour of a mythical ideal.

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