As you work on creating your own writing, does it ever feel like the work of famous authors is at an inaccessible level? Does it ever seem like those writers you admire must just have the words flow out of them easily and naturally in a superior form?
Well, be inspired and comforted by the linked article from Slate highlighting the comments left by several authors upon rereading their old works - and the lessons we can learn from those annotations.
The self-analysis was part of the First Editions, Second Thoughts project, in which PEN America asked 61 writers and 14 artists to annotate their early works for a Dec. 2 auction at Christie’s New York. The proceeds will go toward PEN’s cause of protecting “free expression for artists worldwide.”
Slate quotes author Paul Auster on the experience: “I can say that it was probably the most bizarre act of writing I’ve ever been involved in.” Other participants include Don DeLillo, Michael Chabon, Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Tyler, Salman Rushdie, Patti Smith, and Philip Roth.
Seven of the authors wrote short essays in T magazine about the experience of returning to their earlier work. Some instead discussed their writing process.
What I found most valuable in terms of writing lessons was:
1. Getting an inside look at what went into the writing process - such as where certain references came from. Material and inspiration can come from anywhere - you just have to have your writerly eyes open even to the mundane.
2. Learning how much work, time or frustration went into crafting certain passages or first lines. Writing is always work, no matter how talented you are!
3. Seeing what sentences or passages they were still proud of in retrospect. It's encouraging for me when I go back and look at my old writing and find a sentence that surprises and delights me. Take time to appreciate yourself instead of just critiquing!
Finally, here is an abbreviated version of Slate's "Three Things You Learn When Famous Writers Reread Their Old Books," excerpted from the article:
1. No one thinks their old books have held up.
Or at least, the writers who considered the question at all went one of two routes: They either modestly highlighted perceived failures or cited changing social mores that had made their original points obsolete. George Saunders, for instance, said that ingénue George Saunders affected an “odd” style—one that seemed to sacrifice “finesse and elegance … in the name of urgency”—because ingénue Saunders thought it would make him sound less practiced and more authentic.
2. Ask writers to meditate on their past writerly personas, and you will mostly get further demonstrations of ongoing writerly personas.
Not only do we have Saunders being charming/unassuming, Roth being incendiary, and Davis being unsettling, but there is Robert Caro marshaling a kind of understated grandeur (“The change in rhythm in the last line, that’s a dying fall”), Marilynne Robinson blending graciousness and lyricism, and Junot Diaz starting off with prophetic-sounding, epiphanic statements (“The beginning only revealed itself at the end”) that you hope he’ll color in later.
3. When you ask famous writers to look at their old books, they start comparing them to ancient poetry (either that or T Magazine primed contributors with an image of the Iliad).
“What’s the first word” of the Iliad, asks Roth. “Rage. That is how the whole of European literature begins: singing the virile rage of Achilles.” Caro describes resorting to the Homeric catalogue in his bid to capture Robert Moses’ titanic achievements in highway construction. “Homer lists all the kingdoms that are coming to sack Troy and all the heroes of Troy who are going to fight them. These lists have a great rhythm to them. I thought that, if I could write well enough, I could do the same thing with highways.” Jennifer Egan laments that A Visit From the Goon Squad didn’t contain a chapter written in Homeric style: “I still regret that I couldn’t find a way to include epic poetry and PowerPoint in a single book.” Maybe the task of revisiting their older work got these writers thinking about the origins of literature itself.