I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend that got me thinking. The article was entitled: Tinkering With the Ideal.
The article began by referencing the new Broadway revival of "West Side Story", which has had huge changes made to it by none other than Arthur Laurents, the man who wrote the original book for the show. I first heard about these changes from my husband, who listened to a piece discussing it on NPR way back in December.
Basically, Arthur Laurents felt that the show was no longer relevant to the youth of today and decided that some big changes needed to be made to update it. These weren't little changes just for show, but big ones like having Maria sing 'I Feel Pretty' in Spanish. In fact, all the Jets speak Spanish in this version of the show. There are other changes too, all with the goal of making the show grittier and more realistic.
The New York Times and other reviews have been mixed, but that isn't really the point. The point is that Arthur Laurents made the choice to change a 52 year old show that is considered a classic.
The WSJ article goes on to discuss other artists that couldn't stop tinkering, like an artist who made little changes to his painting after it was already hanging in the gallery, or a composer revising some of his most famous works so that he could earn Western royalties on them.
The example that most caught my attention though was the one about writers making changes to their works. W.H. Auden and Henry James are the two authors whom the article provides as examples.
Here is the Henry James example given from his novel "The Portrait of a Lady" initially published in 1881, and revised by him 25 years later for a new collection of his works.
This is the original:
"His kiss was like a flash of lightning; when it was dark again she was free."
And this is the new version:
"His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and
stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing
in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his
face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one
with this act of possession. So had she heard of those wrecked and under water
following a train of images before they sink. But when darkness returned she was
Which version do you prefer as a reader and/or a writer?
Personally, I like the added details towards the end of the revised example, in the second last sentence, but the rest of it doesn't do much for me.
More than just questioning the tinkering of others, this article also made me consider how long the tinkering on my own works might last. Right now, at the very beginning of rewriting my novel, and struggling to just make it through my first read through, the thought of continuing to make changes twenty-five or fifty years from now sounds awful.
At the same time, I know myself. I cannot go back and read something that I wrote years ago without seeing something that I want to change. Sometimes, it's just a tweak of a few works, and other times it is a huge change brought about by some sudden epiphany. Mabye these are the types of changes that can only be made once we have the distance of years, when we can see past our affection for the original idea.
The other question this begs is: if tinkering, rewriting, and revising is an endless process then how do we know when our writing is ready to submit and send out there into the world?
My thought is that you make the work as good as you possibly can right now. Use your best sense of what works, along with beta readers, and while it may never be perfectly perfect, there should be a point where it has reached a certain amount of polish and completeness.
Now what do you think? Did West Side Story need to be changed? What about the Henry James story? And in your own writing are you an endless tinkerer? And when do you know that it's the point to stop the revising and just put it out there already?