Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Exploring the Blood Meridian

Writing. What is it? Why is it? Where do I fit in? Frankly, when I'm writing, I'd rather be rollercoastering.

This week I read an interesting article about Cormack McCarthy and his papers, particularly concerning his early manuscripts for Blood Meridian. This passage caught my eye.
For the next seven years or so, all the way to galley proof in 1984, McCarthy whittled Blood Meridian down into the lean nightmare we now know. He cut whole characters and became more and more sparing of his description of the ones that remained. This was nowhere more pronounced than with the character of the kid, the nameless ruffian and pseudo-protagonist of the tale.
Seven years. Whittling and whittling, with some writers block along the way.  But also this:

Though McCarthy is a famously slow writer, the traditional author’s worries of plot and pacing and voice appear to only take up a modicum of McCarthy’s time. While I’m sure stylistic concerns gnaw at him, there are also whole pages of Blood Meridian that were, incredibly, written on first try (including the astonishing “legion of horribles” passage). Instead, McCarthy seems to spend most of his time hunched over in the post-production editing bay, mulling over the access he’s willing to grant the reader and splicing out any descriptive bits that might risk tainting us with a character’s psychology. In drafts, he writes sentences that make the contemporary reader sit up straight in his chair in revelation—“the kid could have shot the judge … His fatal weakness” or “The kid gives his own moral stand”—only to omit them in the next draft. It’s as if McCarthy writes these expository moments only for his own reference, knowing that later he’ll erase them and leave the reader to navigate by as dusty and torn a map as possible.
The full article is here, and it's well worth your time. I sometimes wonder if our current obsession with quick turnaround, flash fiction, online markets, may end up robbing the future of much of the abiding brilliance that comes from the slow simmering deep thought of our predecessors (not that we don't have a McCarthy or two still in our midst, mind you). On the other hand, maybe this churning of ideas and this constant competition hones a writer's skill more quickly so that they are ready to write their masterpiece earlier than they would have before the internet age. What are your thoughts on this issue? How does your working process function to pull the very best into your work? How much emphasis to do give to post-production?


  1. Not been here much this year - mostly because I have been writing bits of novels, but I found this interesting because with each successive piece of work I am less incluned to rush it out, more to mull over bits to get them exactly right. But seven years? No, I'm not that patient.

  2. An interesting point. Having just turned in a manuscript that took my wife and I nearly ten years from conception to fourth full revision, I can safely call myself that patient. What strikes me, though, is the confident insistence with which McCarthy goes about his craft, the way he inserts character back story in draft then removes it without compunction later. Seeing the journey as a journey, in other words, the book as an editing process, rather than a series of creative false starts. That opened my eyes (I hope).

  3. I like the idea of letting our work simmer, writing fast but revising slow, yet at the same time I've seen my writing benefit greatly from the Write1Sub1 pressure cooker, and some of my best work has come out of it.

    1. Especially for short fiction, though I think the more ambitious a piece is, the more some simmering might help it.

  4. I like letting things mull for a while. My strongest stories are the ones that sat for months between initial draft/clean-up and later revisions. For me it's just a question of letting all the bits and pieces of a story in my subconscious make it to the surface (which doesn't happen when I rush to edit and submit.)

    Of course, I'm fonder of longer forms (novelette and up) which can better withstand the longer revision process than a short story which may become overwritten if revised for months at a time.