Sunday, July 06, 2014

Writing without Feedback

Sometimes, when we read about our favourite novels we think of them as being immutable works of art: and in some ways they are; as a book gets published it becomes generally the version that we'll read forever. But there are some notable exceptions of course. "Tender is the Night"was for a long time available in a re-ordered version, which is chronological. The "original" (which has now been restored in all available editions) is not without its structural problems, so you can perhaps understand why Fitzgerald's novel was messed around with. John Fowles spent a lot of time and energy rewriting "The Magus", though its so much a novel of its time, I doubt there will be many who compare both versions. Publishers have given us "Stephen Hero" as an earlier version of "Portrait of the Art as a Young Man" and at least two versions of "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Poets often chop and change their "selected" works throughout their career, and in the case of someone like Auden, change the poems themselves.

When you're writing without a publisher or agent on the horizon, to "second guess" what the market wants is a difficult job, and - especially in the case of a novel - a long book might still only receive a cursory glance. On the other hand much more experienced writers sometimes seem to be entirely unedited these days.

Looking back through some old work today - stories from around 2002 - I'm reminded that much of what I've written over the years has existed entirely without feedback. Sure, I did an M.A. in novel writing in 1998, and that novel was worked over - at least the first few chapters - by students and tutors on the course; but the final thing, though it got a reading and a mark came out of the door unchanged from the version I completed. At one point, I can't quite remember when, I restructured a couple of chapters but that's all. It is, for all its faults, all my own work.

More recently I've been in a writing group and its helped chivvy me along and make me aware of things such as perspective in the novel I'm writing. Its given me some ideas - though perhaps reading the other writers' work intently is what gives you more ideas (not that their books are the same, just you can learn from other's works in progress I think.) With poetry I realise that workshops and me are a bit of a dead loss. I take along poems that are not quite there, and I rarely manage to make something out of them despite the valid criticisms.

I think that I'm a just a writer who has a bit too clear an idea of what he wants to do, and its not that I don't accept - or need - feedback, just that the work doesn't easily give in to it. In some ways this is a real positive - as I can see, even in much older stuff, how strong my vision for a particular piece was. the downside, I think, is that you're always writing in a bit of a vacuum, that however many other writers' you read, you don't quite get a perspective on your own work. I guess its like when you hear your own voice for the first time: "do I really sound like that?" you say. Many years ago, sending a short novel off for a competition  I had only the vaguest idea that my writing was even competent. It got shortlisted, which meant the world to me - as until then only friends had ever read my work. At least I wasn't incomprehensible.

Reading old stories I find that generally I have put the work in (there are unfinished pieces where I haven't), but its hard to know where it was I was coming from at the time - and therefore would be hard to rewrite them now. Checking things out, I've written over a hundred short stories, only a few of which have been published. What does that great wave of "unpublished" stories mean? I say "unpublished" but not necessarily "unread" - I used to hand them round to friends for commentary. Though not, I think, for feedback. It always pleased me that my stories were generally seen as readable. Occasionally I'd write something a little more experimental or different and these stories always seemed to get better feedback than I'd expected.

Yet I think there's a difference between this, and getting things published. I think there's a particular difficulty in sending things off to magazines and competitions - whether poems or fictions - you need to consider the amount of submissions they'll get. They are looking for reasons not to publish you, as much as to publish you. I used to be quite good at this tightrope - but over the years, seem to have lost the knack.

I think there's an element of self-destruction in having written so much. I'm unlikely to want to rewrite what I've already written, or even go back to old themes. Yet however "good" an old story is - I don't think its likely I'd send it off to get published now. When I put together a poetry collection I did go back four or five years for some poems, and I was surprised how many unpublished ones I chose, often ahead of published ones. With stories I'm not so sure - maybe the feedback a story needs is the follow-up story? Styles change, subject matter changes, one's use of language changes.

Writing is a solitary pursuit of course, and often lasts a long time without an audience. "Greats" like Golding and Fowles and Kafka took a long time to get their work appreciated - and didn't always have a local reader either. Even someone like Joyce who was self-proclaiming (and being proclaimed) as a genius from an early age wrote "Dubliners" in something of a vacuum. I think the only reason we are able to write without feedback, fearlessly, believing in what we do, is because we're not entirely alone but carry with us the many books we've read and admired. Whether our peers or predecessors, these are the books we are most often in a dialogue with.

No comments: