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Oh, to Write Like Paul Bowles

October 25, 2012

Interviewer: Do you revise a great deal after you’ve finished the rough draft?

Paul Bowles: No, the first draft is the final draft. I can’t revise. Maybe I should qualify that by saying I first write in longhand, and then the same day, or the next day, I type the longhand. There are always many changes between the longhand and the typed version, but that first typed sheet is part of the final sheet. There’s no revision.

On the other hand, this from Michael Crichton: “Books aren’t written. They’re rewritten. It is one of the hardest things to accept.”

All right, that clears things up.

Few of us are as proficent as the late Paul Bowles, who could basically publish his first drafts. We’re like Michael Crichton, rewriting and rewriting until the book is something we’re happy with and proud of. I did eight drafts of “The Champagne Ladies” before it was published. And that’s after firmly believing each of the previous seven was perfect.

They never are, and neither is the published version. I can’t remember who said this but it’s true: Writing is a compromise between what we want to say and what we’re skillful and talented enough to say.

I’m 12,000 words into my new novel, about a gang of Polish thieves in early 1970s Chicago, and already I’ve taken pages of notes outlining the revisions needed earlier in the book. The first three pages of the first chapter have to be completely rewritten to make sense as the story unfolds.

Paul Bowles is one of my favorite novelists. He’s mostly known for “The Sheltering Sky,” made into a disastrous movie by Bertolucci, but I prefer Bowles’ “Let It Come Down.” In interview after interview he never inflated the importance of being a writer; in fact, he often deflated his own importance. Bowles was a successful composer before he became a writer, and one interviewer asked him to summarize his schievements. Bowles said: “I’ve written some books and some music. That’s what I’ve achieved.”

Keeping life in its properperspective, like writing incredible novels, is an art. Bowles was an artist in both.

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