February 5, 2015
Revising the way we look at revisions by looking at them
by Josh Cohen
Gregory Gershwin recently published a novel called Benjamin Buckingham And The Nightmare’s Nightmare, in which the talking dinosaur from the titular character’s favorite TV show appears in the boy’s bedroom and takes him on fantastical adventures.
Other than the Barney fanfictionness of the thing, there’s nothing extraordinary about this book hitting the shelves—aside from its title, which is amazing. What’s interesting is seeing the process that brought it to its final form.
A revision about Gregory Gershwin: He’s actually Gregory Mazurek, fiction writer and software engineer who, per Quartz, publically shared every draft of Benjamin Buckingham. Using GitHub, a version management site he commonly used in his programming work, Mazurek generated an autosaved draft anytime he tweaked a sentence or left himself “brutally honest or terribly unsure” comments. At that point, releasing the files to the Interweb at large was simply a matter of changing the privacy settings.
How fulfilling a perusal of Mazurek’s revisions will be for you really depends on how you feel about the silliness and wonder of childhood whimsy—which, if you don’t care for it, says less about Mazurek’s GitHub experiment and more about your own joylessness, you emotional husk.
Sorry, that was too harsh, let me rework that: You should totally take a look at the revisions, I’m sure you’re a kind and buoyant soul and will enjoy it!
It really is neat to see step-by-step how a book evolves in the editing process. On his GitHub page, Mazurek highlights some of the more significant alterations he wound up making:
Quartz notes that early draft publication isn’t exclusively a Web phenomenon; typewriter jockeys such as T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Jack Kerouac had writing published that they later crafted further before releasing it in a finalized form. (ed. note: Whitman is the undisputed King of Revision.)
Publishing true in-progress drafts has less precedent, though, save for postmortem revelations of an author’s archives or the like. Makes you wonder what fascinating edits were lost to the ages—Shakespeare’s happy-go-lucky Hamlet; Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities set in Minneapolis and St. Paul; Salinger’s first conception of A Catcher in the Rye in which Holden Caulfield meets a talking dinosaur and goes on fantastical adventures.
The artist’s process is a much-romanticized thing, how a human being can take a spark of inspiration and create something with the capacity to inspire others. We’re moved to explore this process in much the same way George Mallory gazed upon Mount Everest and was compelled to climb it: “Because it’s there.” To grapple with man’s limitations, and in doing so, move beyond them. To take restlessness and transform it into lasting achievement, preserved in time.
I’m not trying to say Gregory Gershwin’s writing is tantamount to ascending Everest, though if someone wants to put that on the book jacket, then I’m absolutely saying that. Preserving a legacy of one’s accomplishments is much easier today than it was 90 years ago, and the odds of you perishing following Gershwin’s footsteps are much more favorable than if you were to follow Mallory’s.
Read a book, people. Don’t climb Mount Everest.
Josh Cohen is a contributing editor for MobyLives.