Yates, Kundera, and Craft

Zachary Martin

Nov 21, 2011

One day in the spring of 2007, while I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I called in sick to work and drove across the Charles River to the library at Boston University. It felt a bit wicked, lying to avoid my job as a textbook salesman so I could spend the day in the special collections department with other volumes, and I remember worrying someone I knew would spot me, would know that I was playing hooky from the world of commerce to immerse myself in research. I had crossed the bridge that day to view the library's files on Richard Yates. Yates had moved to Boston in 1976 at the urging of his editor, Sam Lawrence, and his manuscripts, including an early draft of Revolutionary Road and notes for an uncompleted novel, Uncertain Times, had found their way back to the city after his death in 1992. It was while living in Boston that Yates had published The Easter Parade and Liars in Love, two of his best books, and it was the Boston Review that had published Stewart O'Nan's 1999 essay on Yates that resulted in a resurgence of critical acclaim for his work. It seemed proper that the city where I lived had taken in one of my favorite writers, and it seemed necessary that I should make a pilgrimage to study the drafts that ultimately became the novels and stories that had so greatly influenced me, ever since Yates' "Best of Everything" had led me to the rest of his writing so many years before. As I sat in the special collections reading room that day, turning the brittle pages of Yates' typescript for an early draft of Revolutionary Road, here is what I remember thinking: for most of its life as a work-in-progress, the novel I perhaps most admired in the world had been awful. Much of the final novel was there, but the story was lifeless. Frank and April's arguments were entirely without subtext, and the prose was lackluster. Here, for instance, is the opening paragraph of the manuscript, then titled The Getaway:
Nine weeks of rehearsing had failed to put the Laurel Players in shape. They were an amateur company, but a costly and dead serious one, recruited from three suburban Connecticut towns. This was to be their maiden production, and their anxiety only deepened as the deadline drew near. But then at dress rehearsal their paid director climbed halfway up a stepladder to tell them, with real conviction, that they were a damn talented group of people and a wonderful group of people to work with.
Compare this with the final product:
The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking out over the footlights of an empty auditorium. They hardly dared to breathe as the short, solemn figure of their director emerged from the naked seats to join them on stage, as he pulled a stepladder raspingly from the wings and climbed halfway up its rungs to turn and tell them, with several clearings of his throat, that they were a damned talented group of people and a wonderful group of people to work with.
It had taken Yates seven years to move from a first draft of the novel to the finished product, and it was at that moment in the library that I understood what those seven years had been for. I already possessed a graduate degree in creative writing by that point, but I doubt I really understood until I saw that manuscript what craft meant. * In an essay published in the New Yorker in 2006, Milan Kundera decried what he calls "the ethic of the archive," wherein "armies of researchers½accumulate everything they can find" of an author's life and work, including "mountains of drafts, deleted paragraphs [and] chapters rejected by the author," all toward the goal, according to Kundera, of creating "an enormous common grave." There is undoubtedly a kernel of truth in what Kundera has to say about archival material. I have a memory, from when I myself worked in a special collections department, of standing over a photocopier and Xeroxing a picture of a prominent Freudian analyst with his dog. A professor upstairs had evidently found the picture indispensable to his research. But make no mistake: there is also something deeply flawed in Kundera's reasoning, at least as it relates to literature. There are two elements that make up a work of literature--art and craft--and to try to deny the scaffolding of the thing, the craft, is to try to elevate it above the realm of human achievement. Despite Kundera, I have little doubt that that morning and afternoon spent in special collections at Boston University was the most formative of my life as a writer. It's not a revelation that we all start off with shit, but it can be revelatory to trace the precise path from straw to gold. Perhaps, for Milan Kundera, the art and craft of storytelling come easily enough, but for the rest of us the archive can serve as a record of craft, as object lessons in how to tell a story. * I sometimes see this process from the outside through the eyes of my partner, who is a trained photographer. When we go to, for instance, the Houston Center for Photography together to view exhibitions, she doesn't seem to experience the same visceral joy that I do upon seeing a well-made photograph. But then again she is able to puzzle over a piece in ways I can only imagine, to appreciate superior craftsmanship where I see nothing. That is a talent made possible by years of examining the remnants of the artistic process, out of seeing all of the various ways a photograph can make its way from negative to print. It is no different in other fields. There is pleasure to be found in seeing a building constructed where once there was an empty lot. As the archive can teach us, a novel or story is constructed just as surely, and learning how stories are built, like learning how houses are built, should only increase our desire to live in them, to make them an integral part of our lives and our identities, and to care for them.