Ernest Hemingway’s war novel A Farewell To Arms could have ended any one of 39 ways.
We know this because Hemingway told us so but also because, two years ago, an edition of the book was published containing each of those endings, and a further eight more to boot.
Some are more optimistic than the final, fatal closing paragraphs, some are minor variations, some entirely different to what was published.
But, as far as the writer was concerned, it took 39 attempts to nail it, “39 times before I was satisfied”.
Three decades later, asked what had made the task so difficult, Hemingway answered, simply: “Getting the words right.”
A 2012 news story on the new edition of the novel was shared with me this week by M, a fellow soldier in the journalistic trenches.
It sparked my interest. My daily workload involves revision, three or four times for every article edited, reading closely for facts and legal. This blog likewise.
But I doubt I’ve subjected any piece of writing to more than a dozen revisions, let alone three dozen, before filing it away.
Hemingway’s dogged rewriting of his novel’s closing paragraphs put me in mind of Malcolm Gladwell’s observation on the success of The Beatles.
He estimated that the group performed 1,200 live shows in the four years before they broke through to stardom, in 1964.
Reading Hemingway, or large parts of his work at least, or listening to The Beatles, it’s easy to presume that finely tuned words or close-to-perfect melodies occur, when they do, more or less naturally.
Such artists laboured on their art, of course, but their inspiration surely ran far beyond Edison’s fabled one per cent?
However, the older I get the clearer the importance of revisiting, remaking and repeating, becomes.
To the extent that the secret of producing the best creative work can be reduced, for me, to a simple practice.
To improve it, revise it; when you can’t revise it any more, you can’t improve it.
Note: I like the idea of ‘life hacks’ – pieces of advice, knowledge, insight, admonitions; discrete mind shots that improve life and produce an awareness of living.
The Lifehacks section of the blog is where I’m collecting and collating them.