Tag Archives: Malcolm Gladwell

Revise, revise…and then revise

Hemingway's first-page draft for A Farewell to Arms. Pic: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Hemingway’s first-page draft for A Farewell to Arms.
Pic: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

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.”

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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.

The Beatles, 1964

The Beatles, 1964

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.

Ernest Hemingway in London at Dorchester Hotel 1944. Pic: NARA

Ernest Hemingway at Dorchester Hotel, London, 1944.
Pic: NARA

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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.

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Want advice? Better get it in your soul

Charles Mingus, Manhattan, 1976 Pic: Tom Marcello

Charles Mingus, Manhattan, 1976
Pic: Tom Marcello

WANT TO be the best?

Yeah you do. And where do you go for advice? Your family, your best friend, Malcolm Gladwell, Simon Cowell, Twitter, a mirror?

How about taking tips from a notoriously temperamental, argumentative, sometimes clinically depressed, now deceased jazz musician?

Interested? Read on.

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For much of my life I’ve believed (part of me still does) that outright competition with others, be they people, circumstances, history, expectations, is the only way to achieve success.

Over time it occurred to me that there might be another route. Instead of contesting with outside factors why didn’t I start competing with myself?

Now this could be a lengthy post on self-awareness, struggle, triumph and failure, the middle ground between the two, the endless search for contentment while always competing.

But you’re in luck – it’s more of a rimshot than a symphony.

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schmichCharles Mingus came of musical age in the 1940s, a golden era of jazz when reputations were carved out and up at cutting contests in the clubs of New York’s 52nd Street.

Faster, better, sharper, more – this was speeding, breathless music for a racing, atomic era.

Later in life Mingus described those early years. “For a while I concentrated on speed and techniques almost as ends in themselves. I aimed at scaring all the other bass players,” he told an interviewer.

Until, out of the blue one evening, the bassist had an epiphany. “One night, when I was 18 or 19, all this changed. I began playing and didn’t stop for a long time. It was suddenly me, I wasn’t the bass anymore.

He went on: “I don’t dig any longer thinking in terms of whether one man is a ‘better’ bassist than another. Actually you’re up there – everyone is – trying to express yourself.”

Mingus took his battle inwards, competing with and against himself. This led to some of the finest music of the century.

I’m not Mingus. Neither are you. But maybe it’s time to ignore the external, get up there and express yourself.

Self improvement? Better get it in your soul.

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All quotes are from an interview with Nat Hentoff, published in the liner notes to Charlie Mingus, Blues and Roots (Atlantic, 2002).

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