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Malcolm Cowley on the Four Stages of Writing: Lessons from the First Five Years of The Paris Review

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“The germ of a story is a new and simple element introduced into an existing situation or mood.”

The kind of literary voyeurism that concerns itself with why great writers write and how, exactly, they go about it has long held especial mesmerism to aspiring authors and voracious readers alike.

In 1953, a trio of literary enthusiasts founded The Paris Review. Spearheaded by George Plimpton, who edited the magazine from its founding to his death in 2003, it forever changed the face of literary journalism with its singular brand of incredibly in-depth, borderline existential conversations with beloved authors on the art and craft of writing. Five years later, they published the finest of those interviews — featuring such literary luminaries as William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, and James Thurber — in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series (public library). Though The Paris Review has since released all of the archival interviews online, as well as in an irresistible boxed set, what makes this particular volume noteworthy is the lengthy introductory essay by the great Malcolm Cowley, who edited the anthology.

Malcolm Cowley

Among his keen insights on the craft, synthesized from the interviews, is a theory of how the creative process works, outlining the four stages of writing:

There would seem to be four stages in the composition of a story. First comes the germ of the story, then a period of more or less conscious meditation, then the first draft, and finally the revision, which may be simply ‘pencil work’ as John O’Hara calls it — that is, minor changes in wording — or may lead to writing several drafts and what amounts to a new work.

Cowley illustrates each of the four stages with anecdotes from the interviewees.

1. IDEATION

In outlining the first, he echoes Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling’s insight on where ideas come from, and writes:

The germ of a story is something seen or heard, or heard about, or suddenly remembered; it may be a remark casually dropped at the dinner table (as in the case of Henry James’s story, The Spoils of Poynton), or again it may be the look on a stranger’s face. Almost always it is a new and simple element introduced into an existing situation or mood; something that expresses the mood in one sharp detail; something that serves as a focal point for a hitherto disorganized mass of remembered material in the author’s mind. James describes it as ‘the precious particle … the stray suggestion, the wandering word, the vague echo, at a touch of which the novelist’s imagination winces as at the prick of some sharp point,’ and he adds that ‘its virtue is all in its needle-like quality, the power to penetrate as finely as possible.

He goes on to give a specific example of this compelling “sharp detail” in action:

In the case of one story by the late Joyce Cary, the ‘precious particle’ was the wrinkles on a young woman’s forehead. He had seen her on the little boat that goes around Manhattan Island, ‘a girl of about thirty,’ he says, ‘wearing a shabby skirt. She was enjoying herself. A nice expression, with a wrinkled forehead, a good many wrinkles. I said to my friend, “I could write about that girl…”‘ but then he forgot about her. Three weeks later, in San Francisco, Cary woke up at four in the morning with a story in his head—a purely English story with an English heroine. When he came to revise the story he kept wondering, ‘Why all these wrinkles? That’s the third time they come in. And I suddenly realized,’ he says, ‘that my English heroine was the girl on the Manhattan boat. Somehow she had gone down into my subconscious, and came up again with a full-sized story.’

Similarly, he cites Anne Porter:

Any book I write starts with a flash, but takes a long time to shape up.

Georges Simenon

2. INCUBATION

This shaping up takes place during the second stage, which reflects T. S. Eliot’s notion of idea-incubation and the third step, “unconscious processing,” of James Webb Young’s five-step “technique for producing ideas.” Cowley writes:

The book or story shapes up — assumes its own specific form, that is — during a process of meditation that is the second stage in composition. Angus Wilson calls it ‘the gestatory period’ and says that it is ‘very important to me. That’s when I’m persuading myself of the truth of what I want to say, and I don’t think I could persuade my readers unless I’d persuaded myself first.’ The period may last for years, as with Warren’s novels (and most of Henry James’s), or it may last exactly two days, as in the extraordinary case of Georges Simenon. ‘As soon as I have the beginning,’ Simenon explains, I can’t bear it very long . … And two days later I begin writing.’ The meditation may be, or seem to be, wholly conscious. The writer asks himself questions — ‘What should the characters do at this point? How can I build to a climax?’ — and answers them in various fashions before choosing the final answers. Or most of the process, including all the early steps, may be carried on without the writer’s volition. He wakes before daybreak with the whole story in his head, as Joyce Cary did in San Francisco, and hastily writes it down. Or again — and I think most frequently — the meditation is a mixture of conscious and unconscious elements, as if a cry from the depths of sleep were being heard and revised by the waking mind.

Like artist Maira Kalman has attested, this gestational period can take place during activities wholly unrelated to one’s creative craft. Cowley writes:

Often the meditation continues while the writer is engaged in other occupations: gardening, driving his wife to town (as Walter Mitty did), or going out to dinner. ‘I have never quite known when I’m not writing,’ says James Thurber. ‘Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a dinner party and says, “Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.” She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, “Is he sick?” “No,” my wife says, “He’s writing.”‘

James Thurber

3. FIRST DRAFT

Next comes the third stage, the writing of the preliminary plight of putting words down on paper:

The first draft of a story is often written at top speed; probably that is the best way to write it. Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who is not among the authors interviewed, once compared the writing of a first draft with skiing down a steep slope that she wasn’t sure she was clever enough to manage. … Frank O’Connor explains the need for haste in his own case. “get black on white,’ he says, ‘used to be Maupassant’s advice — that’s what I always do. I don’t give a hoot what the writing’s like, I write any sort of rubbish which will cover the main outlines of the story, then I can begin to see it.’ There are other writers, however, who work ahead laboriously, revising as they go. William Styron says, ‘I seem to have some neurotic need to perfect each paragraph — each sentence, even — as I go along.’ Dorothy Parker reports that it takes her six months to do a story. “I think it out and then write it sentence by sentence — no first draft. I an’t write five words but that I change seven.’

Frank O'Connor

4. REVISION, REVISION, REVISION

In the fourth and last stage, rewriting and revision — something the current U.S. children’s poet laureate has advocated — take the reins:

There is no stage of composition at which these authors differ more from one another than in this final stage of preparing a manuscript for the printer. Even that isn’t a final stage for O’Connor. ‘I keep on rewriting,’ he says, ‘and after it’s published, and then after it’s published in book form, I usually rewrite it again. … Françoise Sagan, on the other hand, spends ‘very little’ time in revision. Simenon spends exactly three days in revising each of his short novels. Most of that time is devoted to tracking down and crossing out the literary touches — ‘adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence — cut it. Joyce Cary was another deletionist. Many of the passages he crossed out of his first drafts were those dealing explicitly with ideas. ‘I work over the whole book, ‘ he says, ‘ and cut out anything that does not belong to the emotional development, the texture of the feeling.’ Thurber revises his stories by rewriting them from the beginning, time and again. ‘A story I’ve been working on,’ he says, ‘… was written fifteen complete times. There must have been close to two hundred and forty thousand words in all the manuscripts put together, and I must have spent two thousand hours working at it. Yet the finished story can’t be more than twenty thousand words.’ That would make it about the longest piece of fiction he has written. Men like Thurber and O’Connor, who rewrite ‘endlessly, endlessly,’ find it hard to face the interminable prospect of writing a full-length novel.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Cowley then dichotomizes how novelists and short story writers approach the process and its stages:

For short-story writers the four stages of composition are usually distinct, and there may even be a fifth, or rather a first, stage. Before seizing upon the germ o fa story, the writer may find himself in a state of ‘generally intensified emotional sensitivity … when events that usually pass unnoticed suddenly move you deeply, when a sunset lifts you to exaltation, when a squeaking door throws you into a fit of exasperation, when a clear look of trust in a child’s eyes moves you to tears.’ I am quoting again from Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who ‘cannot conceive,’ she says, ‘of any creative fiction written from any other beginning.’ There is not much doubt, in any case, that the germ is precious largely because it serves to crystallize a prior state of feeling. Then comes the brooding or meditation, then the rapidly written first draft, then the slow revision; for the story writer everything is likely to happen in more or less its proper order. For the novelist, however, the stages are often confused. The meditation may have to be repeated for each new episode. The revision of one chapter may precede or follow the first draft or the next.

Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series is worth a read even if only for Cowley’s deeply insightful, wide-ranging twenty-page introductory essay, covering many more facets of the creative process and the techniques of various literary greats. Complement it with these 9 books to help you write better, then follow up with the 1939 gem A Technique for Producing Ideas.

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