- The Gestalt of RevisionCommentary on “Return to the Typewriter”
The late Donald Murray, considered by many as one of America’s greatest writing teachers, used to say that writers, despite their best intentions, often keep telling the same story over and over again. For me, it is the story of the wronged son. Somehow nearly every personal essay I write seems to find its way back to that theme, no matter how much I hope to send it in other directions. “Return to the Typewriter” was no exception. Even an essay about collecting manual typewriters had to be about my sad, alcoholic father and the wounds I suffered from his drinking. I think personal essayists are obligated to recognize these master narratives when they appear in their work, and to view them with suspicion.
Despite my vigilance about this, it took another reader to help me to see that I had once again surrendered a draft to that familiar theme. Carrie, a colleague and friend who knows my work, met me at a coffee shop in Boise to talk about “Return to the Typewriter,” and quickly turned to this line, about midway through the draft: “It’s likely I’m more attuned to the typewriter’s crude rhythms because as a child I often went to sleep to the sound of my father pounding away on his Royal Standard in a room down the hall. The sound was a lullaby because it meant my father wasn’t too drunk to type, and as I lay there in the dark I could believe him again when he said he was a writer.” Many pages later, the draft ended with a line that continued the thought, suggesting that the sound of typing is the sound of hope. My decision to end the draft that way signaled, unambiguously, that the piece was about trying to heal the same old wound.
“I’m not sure, Bruce, but I don’t really think this essay is about your father,” [End Page 175] she said, leaning over her coffee cup. “I mean it might be, I guess, but that’s not how I read it.” I knew immediately she was right, and that the revision must begin by wrestling with the question of meaning. If not the story of the wronged son, what was this typewriter essay about?
I was asking myself the question I often put to my students, one that I usually phrase tactfully, making a query about the “theme” or “big idea” behind a draft. But behind this is always a more indelicate question, one that is both essential and risky: “So what?” It is essential because works of nonfiction should have a clear and often explicit purpose, but it’s also a risk to nail this down too soon. A rush to judgment about the meaning of a work can turn a theme into a thesis, which becomes a club that beats the material into submission before writers have a chance to discover what they didn’t know they knew. And yet, an essay must be about something. There has to be some kind of idea or question that animates the work, some thread that runs through it and makes it whole.
I don’t think we’re very good at talking about the problem of unity in creative work, which seems strange because it’s so important. Part of the challenge is the relatively impoverished language we have to talk about it, at least in writing. Somehow even “theme” seems too much like “thesis” — it feels reductive and overly simplistic, like a suitcase into which the material must be neatly folded. This goes against our sense that the work, like the fragments of experience it captures, is much unrulier than that. No amount of jumping up and down on the suitcase is enough to close the latch. But I also think that writers sometimes even resist the idea of unity, especially if it is explicit; these writers think that readers should be able to intuit a theme, and if it happens to differ from the one intended, so much the better.
I’d argue that in most...