Note: My 2014 end-of-year, holiday gift to myself has been re-reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (author’s preferred edition). While considering a post about advice to teachers and professors as scholarly and public writers, I came across a post from a smaller blog of mine, DISCOURSE as quilting from 16 June 2013: remnant 21: “I began feeling more and more uncomfortable with the text that they would be using.” This piece, I think, touches on many things I want to share with readers of my main blog so I am reposting below with small revisions.
This is the story of one narrator with three eyes: writer, editor, teacher.
No, not three physical eyes, but ways of seeing writing.
It starts (the story, not the chronology of what actually happened) in a bookstore.
I must admit (shame on me) that I order a great deal of books online. I am still a hard-copy sort who loves the cover and texture and weight of books—although I recognize the possible need to shift into the virtual world.
I also must add that my book fetish overrides my concern about BIG online sellers and chain bookstores. Somehow my moral compass is skewed enough to forgive almost anything as long as the sanctity of the book is honored. (I hasten to add, not much here in my soul to respect, by the way; no delusions on my end about that—although I do love children quite deeply and genuinely because I hold out a tiny speck of hope for the future inside a very dark cloud of certainty it’s not going to happen.)
So I was at the chain bookstore to grab a few Haruki Murakami volumes, I hoped. I had plowed through in about a year all his English-language novels, but had yet to venture into his short stories and non-fiction. I expected a chain store had at least some of what I didn’t yet own, and although I had promised myself not to buy any more books until after I received the then soon-to-be-released Neil Gaiman, and read that, I was jonesing for some Murakami and I gave in like a heroine addict—or worse, like someone who loves to read.
I pulled two collections of Murakami short stories off the shelf and touched the covers, testing their weight, and felt suddenly happier than normal. The store was well air conditioned, and I had spent most of the day doing a somewhat hellish bicycling ride with four friends—75 miles into the North Carolina mountains during a warm, almost-summer day in South Carolina.
The bookstore and holding two new books had brought me some calm so I just began to look around, touching and holding books I’d never read, glancing over displays of “Summer Reading” (mostly the sorts of books we cram down children’s throats in school) and noticing that I had read just about all of them.
Then I saw this:
My first thought was how beautiful the cover is, followed quickly by: This is not the cover of the copy I own. I reached for it, touched the cover, tested the weight, and then noticed: “American Gods, author’s preferred text.”
The comic book industry discovered that powerful nerd instinct (something akin to OCD, or simply OCD) that compels some of us to own multiple versions of the same thing. An episode of The Big Bang Theory, “The 21-Second Excitation,” centers on a new cut of Raiders of the Lost Ark containing, yep, 21 more seconds.
I understand this because I was a comic book collector throughout adolescence, I still hoard some comics and many books, and I own the DVD of the multitude of versions of Blade Runner—noting to a friend recently when lending him the set that he should watch only the Final Cut.
Thus, I slipped this version of Gaiman’s novel into my hand with the two Murakamis, but this was more than the careless hoarding of a nerd. This story is about Gaiman’s “A Note on the Text”:
The book you’re holding is slightly different from the version of the book that was previously published….
As they told me about the wonderful treats they had planned for the limited edition—something they planned to be a miracle of the bookmaker’s art—I began to feel more and more uncomfortable with the text that they would be using.
Would they, I inquired rather diffidently, be willing to use my original, untrimmed text?
Now the story loops backward in time.
Maybe a couple of months ago and then a few weeks ago (at the time this post was originally written).
I have been teaching writing in a variety of ways (high school students, graduate students, undergraduate students) for almost thirty years now. I have been a writer (or better phrased, I should note the amount of time that has passed since I realized I am a writer) since a spring day in 1980 when I sat in my third-story dorm room writing what I consider “my first poem,” an e.e. cummings homage about throwing a Frisbee. And I have been an editor of columns and books for several years now, close to a decade, I believe.
As a scholar, I often submit work and have essentially the same sorts of responses from the editors in charge of my work, responses that rise above the essential and welcomed editing that all writing needs and deserves.
Often, the editor doesn’t want my work; the editor wants the piece s/he would have written.
Now back to Gaiman’s “author’s preferred text.”
I looked at that marvelous blue cover, and thought, What? Neil Gaiman had a text published that he didn’t quite want?
So buying this edition of American Gods, first, was to appease my own psychoses. Next, it was a political act to honor Gaiman’s “preferred text,” a political act from a not-really-very-important writer (but a damned loyal reader) to a real-honest-to-god writer. A deposit in the intersection of karmas among writers, readers, lovers of art.
But all of this leaves me sad ultimately, sad in a way that will from this moment on inform me as a writer, editor, and teacher.
When I was younger (not much) and couldn’t get anyone to publish my work, I dutifully worked through the nearly-all-red track changes of edited submissions. Like the mother’s boy I am, I wanted so badly to please—and be published.
Over the last several years, however, I have gained the luxury of being well published, and despite my eternal quest to be wanted, to have others say my writing matters, I have twice now pulled scholarly pieces from projects after the editors and I spent a great deal of time revising my initial pieces.
And sitting there with Gaiman’s “preferred text” beside the computer, I was working toward being at peace with this idea:
Once a piece of my writing stops being mine, and starts being yours, I have to say with all due respect that maybe you should just write the piece yourself.
Although I am not completely sure this is true, I used to share with students that Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises to show he could write a better The Great Gatsby. (And he did, I think.) All in all, seems the right thing to do. We are the richer for it, and what a shame if one had simply edited the other into writing only the one book?
And since I have ignored all conventions of chronology here, let me slip again to a moment when I had to make that decision.
An editor (a kind and careful soul) had heavily edited a piece, moving large sections of text, and then noting (and this will seem quite trivial) that she had changed my final subhead to “Conclusion.”
The straw that broke the camel’s back—I couldn’t allow a piece published with my name have a subhead I have been urging my students and works under my editorship to avoid. Conclusion?
Is there anything more lifeless than that? Anything that tells the reader that this writer doesn’t really have anything to offer? That this writer is just getting on with it, getting this thing over?
Writing is collaboration, and so is reading.
As writer, editor, and teacher, however, I must respect the piece the writer wants to share, lest we all sit alone talking to ourselves.
The story ended there. I had to work on a poem about lavender silk monkeys and continued to avoid working on three chapters due for scholarly books in a few months.