Review: Watching the Writer’s Mind Work, Write Cut Rewrite: The Cutting Room Floor of Modern Literature, by Dirk Van Hulle and Mark Nixon

Everyone, I suppose, has a sense of the what-if of history. What if Abraham Lincoln hadn’t gone to Ford’s Theater that night and avoided assassination? What if I had taken a different route to work and wasn’t at that intersection where the semi ran over the front of my car? 

Literature is like that, except it’s very difficult to imagine. Moby Dick opens with the sentence, “Call me Ishmael,” and it seems as if it just had to open that way. But that’s not the way writing works. The work, as published, seems almost sacrosanct, as if it were written in stone. Yet, it was written on a blank page, and, in some alternative world, it could have been “Call me Bob.”

All of us, when we are writing, even while composing a text, tend to make changes, if only to correct spelling or phrasing or to give the words more punch or clarity.

In Write Cut Rewrite: The Cutting Room Floor of Modern Literature, Dirk Van Hulle and Mark Nixon, both British professors of literature, write that the act of deleting—of cutting out a word or whole pages—is crucial in a writer's creative process.

“And yet we seldom get to see any traces of this process, partly because writers often make cuts in the privacy of their drafts. And if they do not wish anyone to see these private documents, they burn or shred them.”

There are, however, some important writers over the past couple centuries who have kept their manuscripts, and those manuscripts tend to end up in archives, such as the Bodleian Library, the holder of more than 13 million printed items and the second largest library in Britain after the British Library.

The Bodleian is the publisher of Write Cut Rewrite, and the University of Chicago Press is their United States distributor. The book looks at dozens of examples of early drafts by writers, and the reader can see images of some drafts, now held at the Bodleian and other archives. 

A “Small Baby” or a “Tiny Little Thing”?

The book is presented as if the reader is sitting next to the writer, watching their mind at work as this is taken out, that is added, a whole phrase is slashed through, and another scribbled above it.

The book is presented as if the reader is sitting next to the writer, watching their mind at work as this is taken out, that is added, a whole phrase is slashed through, and another scribbled above it.

For example, an image of the first draft of Samuel Beckett’s play Not I shows the top two-thirds of the page with a large thin X through it, drawn with what seems to be the same pen that wrote the scores of words that the X has now cancelled. But then, as if to emphatically reject those words, Beckett drew a larger, wider, energetic squiggle over them with a black felt-tip marker.

As Van Hulle and Nixon note, Beckett had done a lot of work on the first draft, and, under the cross-outs, it’s still possible to read the author’s stops and starts: “birth into the this world…this world…of a small tiny baby boy or girl in a small…what?...girl?” (In my rendering here, the boldface words are those added by Beckett while he was cutting the words with strike-throughs.)

Beckett then drew a line under that section, and immediately started a second draft in which “tiny baby” was replaced by “tiny little thing.” Van Hulle and Nixon write:

“The act of cancelling was not necessarily a manner of omitting, but a way of forcing himself to revise and rewrite, according to Louise Bourgeois’ principle ‘I do, I undo and I redo.’ ”

In the fifth typescript of the play, Beckett made the final change in those opening words: “birth out ... into this world ... this world ... tiny little thing…”

Feeling a Kinship with Great Writers

As a professional writer who started my career well before the use of computers as writing utensils, I find Write Cut Rewrite fascinating.

When I was a young Chicago Tribune reporter, I wrote my stories on what were called “books”—layers of several pages of paper and carbons, so that copies of the edited story could be distributed to various production people. I would type the story and then go over it with a pen, pressing hard to go through all the layers, when I wanted to make a change. 

Even after we started writing on computers, I would print out my story and make edits on the hard copy and then transfer those edits onto the digital version. That’s the process I used in writing all my books, and in writing my poetry—and my book reviews. In most cases, I saved some of my drafts. In looking at Write Cut Rewrite, I could feel a kinship, however distant, with some great writers.

But, given that so much writing is done today in a digital form, I’m not sure how many professional writers keep any drafts. Van Hulle and Nixon devote a chapter to born-digital works, explaining that there is a kind of spyware that a writer can install that will track every change in a manuscript. One, thus, could go back to the blank page and watch the whole writing process evolve. I suspect that not a lot of writers today keep this sort of record. Thus, I’m not sure how interesting Write Cut Rewrite would be for them. Then again, maybe I’m selling them short.

Even writers who don’t save copies of drafts are doing the sort of cutting, pasting, rearranging, and rethinking that the book illustrates. It is, as I’ve said, fun to watch Beckett and Mary Shelley and J.R.R. Tolkien and Raymond Chandler and John le Carré as they perform the hard work of writing.

Le Carré, by the way, began his first draft of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with the simple sentence, “I still see him there.”

Then, as Van Hulle and Nixon detail, he noodled at it and fiddled with it, as you can see through draft after draft, and eventually came up with this opening: “The truth is, if old Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races, Jim would never had come to Thursgood’s at all.”

It took him 128 days of writing to get to that opening.

One last note: I realized after I’d written the first paragraph of this review that it was kind of long and probably too long. So, I did some cutting, and what you see at the top of the review is the result.

Below is what it looked like before I cut it:

Everyone, I suppose, has a sense of the what-if of history. What if Abraham Lincoln hadn’t gone to Ford’s Theater that night and avoided assassination? What if the US Supreme Court had voted a different way and Al Gore had become President and was in office on September 11, 2001? What if I had taken a different route to work and wasn’t at that intersection where the semi ran over the front of my car? What if I hadn’t gone to that retreat where I met my wife?

What if I’d used this longer version? Would this review be better? Those are the sort of questions at the heart of Write Cut Rewrite: The Cutting Room Floor of Modern Literature.

Readers can see, for example, how Raymond Chandler went back again and again with different color pens to write and cut and rewrite the last sentences of The Long Good-bye. The final words in the published edition were “But he didn’t.” They could have been something much different, and, through Van Hulle and Nixon’s book, the reader can be there as Chandler is pondering the finishing touches on his great work.

Write Cut Rewrite: The Cutting Room Floor of Modern Literature is available at most bookstores and through the University of Chicago Press website.

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Patrick T. Reardon

Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicago historian, essayist, poet and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).