March 10, 2017 by readlisaread
Visual artists either try to replicate reality, or represent an alternate view of reality (think Photo-realism vs Impressionism). Writers try to create either of those two realities with words. And what of Dramatists? The erstwhile theatre geeks? Well, we long to be the pictures and the words, all at once.
I watched a movie recently, a bio-pic of Thomas Wolfe called “Genius”. I admit I have not read a lot of his work, being a little afraid to after the summer I spent trying to read Faulkner. I tried “As I lay Dying”, “Light in August”, and “The Sound and the Fury”. In each case, try though I might, I just could not make it through to the end—and I almost never abandon a book part way. Faulkner wrote in a “technique known as stream of consciousness, in which the writer takes down the character’s thoughts as they occur to him, paying little attention to chronology of events or continuity of story line.” Oddly, though it would seem as if the author wanted to draw the reader into the story, right into the consciousness of the narrator, it had the opposite effect on me. I could not enter that book, that page, a single phrase. His words did not draw me in.
In the movie “Genius”, Wolfe, a contemporary of Faulkner and friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald (in latter day terms, we might more exactly, if colloquially, call them “Frenemies”), is challenged by his publisher to edit. With a heavy hand. Remove thousands of words, hundreds of pages. To call Wolfe a prolific writer would be an understatement of the highest order.
In a pivotal scene in the movie, Wolfe’s editor (and friend and confidante) Maxwell Perkins helps the author be more publishable by rewriting (or, more exactly, drastically paring down) this passage:
“As Eugene’s eyes became accustomed to the haze of the cigarettes and cigars swirling miasma-like he saw a woman, in serge, and gloves that crept like living tendrils up her normally ivory arms, but now sun-kissed as a blush, as the incarnadine discovery inside a conch shell seen for the first time by a bewildered zoologist as he is undone by its rosy, promising pinkness; those were her arms. But it was her eyes that stopped his breath; that made his heart leap up. Blue they were, even through the swirling vapors of pompous Chesterfields and arrogant Lucky Strikes he saw her eyes were a blue beyond blue, like the ocean. A blue he could swim into forever and never miss a fire engine red or a cornstalk yellow. Across the chasm of that room, that blue, those eyes, devoured him and looked past him and never saw him and never would, of that he was sure. From that moment, Eugene understood what the poets had been writing about these many years, all the lost, wandering, lonely souls who were now his brothers. He knew a love that would never be his. So quickly did he fall for her that no one in the room even heard the sound, the whoosh as he fell, the clatter of his broken heart. It was a sure silence, but his life was shattered.”
After much negotiation, and despite Wolfe’s verbosity (which suggests to the viewer each word that is excised causes him physical pain), finally the passage is whittled down to:
“Eugene saw a woman. Her eyes were blue. So quickly did he fall for her that no one in the room even heard the sound.”
And herein I discovered a picture that had been painted, in words, of my own struggle. I want to be in that room, watching Eugene, I want to weave through the crowd, smell the smoke, hear the ice clinking in glasses (that’s not even mentioned in the passage, it’s the picture his words paint in my head); I want to follow the woman with the blue eyes, I want to point Eugene out to her, I want to be Eugene’s wingman. I want to be in the thick of it.
The edited version has a whole different effect on me. It affords the luxury of creating the scene the way you wish it to look, I suppose, and it drops the hammer on the delicious metaphor of the sound of a breaking heart (or, at least, a sudden and dramatic falling in love). But while it speaks to the art of writing, it stifles the dramatic spirit.
Despite the fact that causing unnecessary drama is generally considered a negative personality trait, the dramatists don’t like to be edited any more than the writers do. The visual artists never get edited in quite the same way— one cannot pull paint off the canvas— their art is a take it or leave it whole proposition. To try to edit a performer is to shush them. You don’t have to like the drama they create or attract, but you can’t insist they behave differently. We are chefs who refuse to allow salt and pepper on the table. We are cartographers who take you to Where there be Dragons, despite knowing the safer, longer, and less scenic route.
Eugene believes in love at first sight. Wolfe believes you can fall in love with words on a page. His editor believes there can be too much drama in the form of too many words.
I believe they are all right, even a fictional and editable character can speak the truth.
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