So Many Books, So Little Time to Write Your Own

"In our era, more than some others, writers must buck up and take care of themselves" says Susan Bell in The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself. If you are writing the Great American Novel or just want to improve your style, study this book. Full of examples, graceful writing and thoughts from published authors, The Artful Edit is entertaining. 

Bell illustrates her points by studying the well-known masterpiece, The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald, and illustrating Fitzgerald's collaboration with the marvelous editor, Max Perkins.  More about Max in a moment.

She says, "Fitzgerald, too, was a master of the squared-off paragraph. He began and ended many with a startling mix of style, philosophy, and itch -- the itch that can only be scratched by moving to the next paragraph..." 

That "itch" has just the right touch, as does 'free-fiddle" in the following observation of the author Luc Sante,  "At the end of a work, he allows himself free-fiddle with words but not structure."  I like Bell's way with words: "If you've written a bird's nest, then, untangle your ideas. Separate them into a few sentences. One small sentence, written well, can tell more than an expansive one that's gangly."

And again: "When you edit, determine what is mystery and what is muddle; the first to be respected and left alone, the second to be respected and cleaned up." 

There are many ways to edit and the book is filled with examples of how different authors approach the process. For example, Michael Ondaatje says, "Having a concept of what the book is exactly about before you begin it is a tremendous limitation, because no idea is going to be as intricate and complicated as what you will discover in that process of writing it." Continuing he says, "I always write the beginning at the end. It's the last thing I write because then I know what the book is about."  

I was so taken with the collaboration between Max Perkins and F. Scott Fitzgerald that I was inspired to read more about the famous editor. I found a lovely book of family letters collected by Max's five daughters and published as The Family Letters of Maxwell Perkins complete with his clever illustrations; also a biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg.

Berg says of Perkins, "Beginning with Fitzgerald and continuing with each new writer he took on, he slowly altered the traditional notion of the editor's role. He sought out authors who were not just "safe," conventional in style and bland in content, but who spoke in a new voice about the new values of the postwar world. In this way, as an editor he did more than reflect the standards of his age; he consciously influenced and changed them by the new talents he published."

Max not only edited Fitzgerald, but also Ernest Hemingway and Tom Wolfe among others. He even conjured up new plots or offered ideas for his authors to develop.Max's greatest gift was summed up by his longtime friend, Elizabeth Lemmon, in a letter to Max's wife after his death, "I have known people who were considered pillars of strength and loved to be leaned on, but Max poured strength into people and made them stand on their own feet."

After reading the story of Max and Tom Wolfe, I must now read Wolfe's autobiographical novels. Isn't it great when one book leads to another? So many books, so little time.