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Hiding the Shirt of Nessus

From the Wikipedia article about John Barth’s Shirt of Nessus (which I am reprinting in full):

The Shirt of Nessus (1952) is the masters thesis of noted American postmodern novelist John Barth. Written for the Writing Seminars program at Johns Hopkins University, which Barth himself later ran, The Shirt of Nessus is not a dissertation, but rather a short novel or novella. It can be considered the first full-length fictional work of Barth’s, and it also is likely to remain the most elusive. Barth, not unlike a fair number of other authors, has revealed himself to be embarrassed by his early non-published work; in this case, most anything before The Floating Opera. The Shirt of Nessus is briefly referenced in both of Barth’s non-fiction collections, The Friday Book and Further Fridays, but little is known of its actual content. The only known copies not held by the author were kept in the Johns Hopkins school library and the Writing Seminars Department thesis copies – however, recent inquiries by devoted Barth fans have shown that the copy held by the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins disappeared in the mid-1960’s, while the other seemed to mysteriously “walk out” of the school’s special collections division of the library. It is the opinion of some notable JHU faculty members who occasionally talk to Barth that he may have even been the mastermind behind these disappearances himself. While that remains speculation, when the special collections division notified Barth in 2002 (when the volume was first found to be missing), Barth responded that he “was not altogether unhappy the library no longer had a copy”.

A few thoughts. First, one of the dangers of having an open publishing model for an encyclopedia is letting such delightful irrelevances fall in. Second, I am particularly embarrassed about my own master’s thesis (which Barth reviewed at the time and seemed not to care for–and for good reason. It was an aimless mishmash). These days published creative writing theses don’t really matter; much more important is getting your stuff online somewhere (under some Ubersite or your own personal one). Instantaneous publishing has dangers though. I find myself doing editing only after I’ve kept it up for a while. In one of my pseudonymous stories, I ended up changing the ending paragraph more than 10 times. I almost wished I could email all the people who read the first version to invite them to read the “better version.”

I did learn a bit by turning in a thesis of creative work, but the only lesson I can impart to people is don’t worry about it. Don’t regard the thesis as a final product. I ended up rewriting several stories thesis after graduating, but many of the others I never got around to changing. In the last year I’ve rewritten several stories I wrote in my twenties. It was eye-opening. Phrases which seemed ok at the time now seemed stilted or inappropriate. Most of the time I just try the draconian solution: delete anything that sounds long-winded or inexact. Curiously, I don’t regard the earlier version as bad writing; just different, less exact. The versions I was revising were the best I could do at the time. Sometimes it’s better just to start fresh. There’s a difference between changing a few phrases and totally rethinking the work. I don’t recommend doing a “rethinking” every time, but it can be satisfying. Interestingly, it does not mean that the revision will be “shorter.” In one story I revised to death earlier this year, I ended up adding episodes and inner thoughts while condensing other parts. The reason for the added length was maturity and experience. I literally understood the story’s emotions better than I used to.

One reason why graduate writing programs are so useless is that they force you to declare an artificial stopping point. In my early 20’s I was still playing (and actually did some cool stuff right after getting my master’s). Getting a creative writing degree wasn’t completely useless; I met a lot of cool people, and learned a lot about the publishing world very early on, and that gave me realistic expectations. Nowadays, though, my projects are more doable (especially now that I am aiming for the web). In my twenties, I was writing stories that I literally had no idea when they would see print. But I could publish anything tomorrow if I wanted; but what’s the rush? It will be done when I say it’s done–however long it takes. I remember the George Carlin joke about dogs: all they do is eat and sleep, eat and sleep. But when you put their dogdish before them, they eat their food as fast as they can. “What’s wrong, Rover?” Carlin asked. “Late for your nap?”

Oh, by the way, I almost never edit/revise weblog posts. Oh, go ahead and scold me–I don’t care!

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