Those Gosh-Darned Editors!

by vinnyhaddad

This week Caroline Maun gave a talk on editing and compiling the work of a poet, Evelyn Scott. Over the course of her work, she remarkably was able to compile a series of unpublished manuscripts, four sources over the course of 30 years, and piece together what she considered Evelyn’s intended finished product. During this talk, the issue arose of what it meant to reach a point where an editor can be comfortable calling a document an “intended product,” and whether what authorial intent means when one considers all that affects a text before it reaches publication. William Wordsworth famously said, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” This view of writing certainly has some drawbacks, particularly when one considers how it may be possible to teach someone how to put pen to paper with a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Yet, many who write creatively, myself included, would echo the feeling that sometimes one cannot explain in a moment what can emerge almost out of nowhere from the heart. I think that when it comes to discussing authorial intent and revision, this sentiment is interesting to consider. Is it possible that the author herself is the last person qualified to revise and detour the authentic initial “overflow of powerful feelings”?

Marcus Merritt brought up the interesting case of Marianne Moore whose poems were compiled in such a way that one could compare her earliest versions and latest versions, noting the possibility that some were more exceptional before a lifetime of revision. As writers, I think many of us can relate to the almost schizophrenic relationship one can have with his or her own text. When I was eighteen, I felt an unnatural surge of creative energy and wrote a short novel that I shared with some of my closest friends. I lacked the self-confidence in my writing to allow it to disseminate further than that, so I let it sit on my hard drive. Four years later, one friend introduced me to the possibility of self-publishing, remarking, “you can make some revisions if you want and start marketing it.” I thought for a moment about that text, and said to him, “I can’t revise it. I’m not the person that wrote that book anymore.” I had a deep fear that I would either a.) not like the worldview I was proffering as a eighteen year-old or b.) totally sell-out the authentic feeling that I had as a young man and subsequently had beaten out of me as I grew older. I felt far more comfortable with the idea of someone else performing that critical piece to the writing process, let them determine authorial intent all they want. When we consider how authentic our reading experience is to the spontaneous overflow of feelings that an author penned to her paper, we should give pause and consider if that is truly the experience that we want. I hope someday a dedicated academic like Caroline Maun will recover some crazy spontaneous overflow of feelings I had when I was young and revise it into something that can be tangible and widely appreciated, a task that is perhaps far more remarkable than the caffeine-induced ramblings of an optimistic depressive.