Attainment and Transition


I have been thinking about attainment and transition in writing: how, when you complete a work–a poem, essay, book–and then later, when you publish it, you both reach a point and push beyond it. Sometimes the very act of publishing takes you to a new perspective; if you were to rewrite the work at this point, you might make some changes (or do something different entirely). The proportion of attainment to transition varies from situation to situation; some works are primarily attainments, others transitions or openings. Neither one is superior to the other; the work that reaches finality is not necessarily more perfect or more worthwhile than the one that opens up changes and new considerations. To the contrary: sometimes the more restless work has the greater liveliness.

Regarding this topic, I sense a cultural difference between the U.S. and Hungary. In the U.S. there is great emphasis on treating your published work as final and perfect; who ever goes back and revises a TED talk, for instance? For a work of nonfiction especially, you are supposed to isolate your “talking points” and say them again and again, in interview after interview. It is uncommon to hear someone say, “My thoughts on this subject have changed,” or “I have altered the wording since the book was published.” Yes, you fix mistakes, but you are otherwise expected to stick to your points. With poetry and fiction, the situation is similar: publishers do not typically want to consider works that have appeared before, even if the author has since revised them. (Part of this has to do with copyright law and economy: publishers compete for “first rights.”)

Here in Hungary I sense something different. My impressions are early and incomplete–I have a lot to learn and take in–but so far I see much less emphasis on finality and newness and much more on seeking, rethinking, and reworking. At least this is what I have found so far. Maybe I found it because I was alert to it. It is all too easy to generalize about a country or to mistake one’s early impressions for the whole. Still, the fragments themselves are promising.


The poet, playwright, screenwriter, and prose author János Térey (whom I heard twice on Thursday) said in an interview in 2016, “Jó társaság átírni mindig verseinket. Úgy fogom fel, hogy ameddig élek, az utolsó kézvonás joga az enyém.” I would translate this approximately as follows: “It is good fellowship to rewrite our poems continually. As I understand it, as long as I live, the right to the last penstroke is mine.” “Kézvonás,” as I understand it, means a pulling of the hand (i.e., with a pen, over paper), so I translated it as “penstroke” (since “handstroke” has a different meaning); another possibility might be “move,” as in a chess move. I am not sure that I translated the first sentence correctly, but if I did, the meaning may be as follows: revision is fellowship (or company, or society) in itself, since it keeps you in dialogue with your work. It also allows for fellowship with others.

Large revisions are not always more important than small ones; sometimes an adjusted line, a single word change along with an altered word order, can recast an entire poem. Why should a person hold back from trying such changes, if they start growing in the mind?

Some might say that if you are allowed to revise a work as many times as you wish, you never have to take responsibility for your words. This would be true, I think, if, after revising, you erased every trace of the previous versions. But if the previous versions still stand, if they remain in published form, you are still responsible for them in some way, perhaps even more than if you did not change them at all. If you think it is wrong to revise published work, then in essence you relinquish it (“it’s done, it’s out there; what can I do but move on?”). But if you continue to revise your work even after publication, then you extend your responsibility; you not only live with your words but continue to work with them.

I consider Mind over Memes (to be released tomorrow) a better book, but also a more transitional one, than Republic of Noise. It brought me to a different place in my thinking and writing. If I were to revise Republic of Noise, I would make some changes but keep most of the text intact. If I were to rework Mind over Memes, it might become an entirely different book–either that, or it would lead to another one. That does not count against it; rather, it’s part of the book’s meaning. It was meant to open up into questions, and it did, for me at least. It remains to be seen what others think of it.

Probably many will see the actual book before I do; my copies have been held up in customs. I hope they arrive soon. Customs here can be tricky; I have yet to receive a scarf (my own scarf, not an ordered item) for which I completed and returned the customs form several weeks ago. The books may take even longer. The ones held up now are my own copies, but I ordered about thirty more copies for book events. I now more fully understand the meaning of “suspense”–not fully, that is, but more fully than before.


I took both pictures in Szolnok this past week. The second one reminds me of several lines from a poem; more about that, possibly, another time. Also, I added a paragraph and made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

Leave a comment


  1. Eirenaios

     /  October 16, 2018

    A fascinating topic.
    There were composers who revised their works many times.
    For example Giuseppe Verdi and his Macbeth:

    Even in science works are revised.
    Dirac was well known for aiming at perfection. When Bohr proposed modifications to Dirac’s writings, he would react and not accept them.

    Dirac’s “Principles of quantum mechanics” is perfect. His 1958 edition is a monument (“aere perennius”, as Horace would say). Anyway it was a 4th edition. But Dirac was compelled to write new editions by progresses in quantum electrodynamics.

    I would be curious to know what you think about the relation between Thomas Wolfe and his Scribner’s editor, Maxwell Perkins.
    And also what you think about the relation between Harper Lee and her “To kill a mockingbird” and the matter of “Go set a watchman”.
    I don’t know if you have already written about that elsewhere. If so, please, let me know where.

    • I know little about the Wolfe/Perkins relationship or “Go Set a Watchman”; thank you for bringing them up. I find the topic (of author-editor relationships) interesting but have not delved into it.

      • Eirenaios

         /  October 17, 2018

        My question was not on the relationship between an author and his/her editor.
        I was not clear in asking it, since I took it for granted that you were well acquainted with the cases.
        Those two cases were situations where an editor compelled an author to revise his/her work so strongly that the final works are very far from the original ones.
        And they leave us the question: the TRUE work by the author is the original one or the revised one, according to the will of an external reader (the editor)?
        Was the work of the editor like the one by a midwife who just helps the birth of a baby?
        Was it the work of helping a newborn bird free itself from the cage of its egg?
        Or instead was it forcing an external will onto the freedom of a thinker?
        Apparently it was the author who changed his/her work under the editor’s suggestions, and revised the manuscript. Was that reaching a maturer stage of the work, or was it changing a route completely because of insurmountable obstacle?

  2. I wasn’t referring to the personal relationship, but rather to the relationship with regard to the work: how much the editor rewrote or reshaped the author’s work. The questions you raise are interesting. I have read a little about the cases of Flannery O’Connor and Robert Giroux, and between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. In the future I might do something with this topic, but I haven’t until now (and am occupied with other things).


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