Regina Spektor’s “Edit” Taunt: Not Necessarily True for Everyone

There is a common belief among the “writing community” (a term Charles Bukowski would have vomited at) that “writing is rewriting.” For most, this tends to be the case, whether because they prefer the “let me shit it all out” method so that what they’ve ejected from within themselves can be fine-tuned or because, quite simply, they possess no natural talent, and have to work harder at “selling.”

The myth of the writer’s essential need for editing was perhaps most succinctly memorexed in modern culture on Regina Spektor’s “Edit” from her 2006 album, Begin to Hope (quite possibly her best). While the meaning behind the song is not straightforwardly about writing (the interpretations have been as varied as being about Michael Jackson to Mary Poppins–that Uncle Albert reference), it is probably the only valuable piece of music we have about the art, even if it is condescending as fuck. With tones of harshness that seem like they might hit a crescendo of vitriol at any moment, Spektor accuses, “You can write, but you can’t edit.” Like some sort of mouthpiece for the collective of writers at large, Spektor goads with her accusation, as though there truly is no merit in a first draft. And yet, some of the best works of the written word have largely remained intact, like the screenplay for Reservoir Dogs, famously beaten out on a typewriter in three weeks (screenwriting is literature too, you know–especially now).

For whatever reason, people like to believe that rewriting extensively and even for years is going to make a vast difference in or improvement upon their work. This is how grad schools are able to prey on such pervasively inflicted maxims. But even James Joyce didn’t fuck around that long writing Ulysses (a seven year period from 1914 to 1921). At the core of great writing, however, is: great writing. It shouldn’t require all this supposed fanfare that so many professorial types feel are cardinal to the creation of prose that will stand the test of time (and, at this point, not many novels come to mind that fit this category anyway).

By the same token, don’t go thinking you’re a genius whose every sentence is spun gold. It’s a fine balance between the intuitiveness of knowing you’ve got something versus telling yourself you’ve got something. And while endless rewriting may be the go-to technique for the majority, don’t hold all writers to this so-called standard for how to attack the page.

In truth, one prefers a writer who can write–bleed, like Hemingway said–rather than edit. Editing is for the publishing outlet, n’est-ce pas?

Leave a Reply