Sunday, August 07, 2005

Polishing Wood Into Ivory.

Isaac Babel, the Russian writer who studied de Maupassant in his youth and became a master of the short-story in his own right, once told an interviewer that he felt like a galley-slave to his writing, "chained for life to his oar but who loves the oar."

It was his own choice to chain himself to that oar, he said, describing his writing process with the same honesty and forthrightness that make his short stories so compelling.

And it was the work of polishing that oar with his hands--and loving everything about that oar--that transformed it, he admitted. "If you use enough elbow grease," Babel said, "even the coarsest wood gets to look like ivory."

When the interviewer, Konstantin Paustovsky (a friend of Babel's who published his work in a newspaper called The Seaman) was invited into Babel's workshop, he spotted on Babel's desk a pile of manuscript pages... at least 100 pages thick.

Paustovsky felt his hopes rise. Babel, the short story writer, had finally written a longer work!

But he could see the cover-page. There, before his eyes, was the title of one of Babel's short short-stories, "Lyubka the Cossack," which he'd heard was still unpublished.

Perhaps, Paustovsky suggested, Babel had expanded the short story into a full-length novella?

Babel merely laughed. "It's Lyubka, all right," Babel said. "And it's fifteen pages long. But there are the twenty-two versions--two hundred pages of it."

Even after revising the twenty-second draft, Babel expressed doubts that the story was fit to publish. "It looks as if it could still be tightened up. It's all this elimination that makes for power of language and style."

Babel admitted to Paustovksy that, like most writers, his first drafts were terrible. "All in bits and pieces tied together with boring passages as dry as old rope..."

His goal was to get something on paper. "Clumsy, helpless, but enough to begin working over, stroking with your hands."

Babel would then go over each sentence again and again, cutting out all the words that he could do without.

"You have to keep your eye on the job," he said, "because words are very sly. The rubbishy ones go into hiding and you have to dig them out--repetitions, synonyms, things that simply don't mean anything."

He'd put the story away for a few days after typing and retyping it. Then he'd check it again.. and again... and take out more rubbish that he might have missed the first time... making another copy, and another... "as many as I have to, until I've cleaned it all up and there's not a speck of dirt left..."

But that wasn't the end of the process.

After he cleaned up the manuscript, he'd begin the hard work of reviewing images and metaphors, making sure the comparisons were fresh.

Not until he'd warmed and polished the words over and over again in his hand would the story "glow like a jewel."

Listen to Babel's advice.

Keep polishing your words.

Keep rowing until, like Babel's oar, your words turn from wood to ivory.

Until your stories glow like jewels.

PS - The full text of the interview, an excerpt from Konstantin Paustovsky's Years of Hope, appears in the March 31, 1969 issue of The Nation. For a slight fee you can access it online at

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