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The Cutting Room Floor

posted: 8.21.13 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Like all chapters of Understanding Rhetoric, our chapter on revision underwent some major revisions.

In order to make the narrative aspects of the book as vivid as possible and to humanize our approach to the writing process, we included a number of cases of radical editing involving famous authors, such as Jane Austen, Abraham Lincoln, and Maxine Hong Kingston.  We were particularly interested in showing the social context of revision activities and how “peer editing” was also done by literary notables.

One of our favorite revision stories involved how Joseph Conrad shared the manuscript of Heart of Darkness with fellow author Ford Madox Ford, and Ford proved to be a tough critic of word choice.  Before we adapted the narrative for our comic book, I had worked with didactic material about the Conrad/Ford relationship that was developed by Michael Householder , who is now an Assistant Dean at Case Western University and the Associate Director of the university’s SAGES program (Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship).

Householder focused on changes made to the last paragraph of the book and how Ford objected to descriptions of silence and immobility that seemed weak to him because they described a negative state.  As Ford wrote, “If nobody moves, you do not have to make the statement; just as, if somebody is silent, you just do not record any speech of his, and leave it at that.”

Of course, translating an argument between two writers about non-depiction into a visual representation can be a challenging thing to do.  Furthermore, the argument between Conrad and Ford took place through the medium of an exchange of letters, and it can be difficult to adapt phrases from epistolary discourse to the idiom of a comic book dialogue bubble.  As we read the Understanding Rhetoric revision chapter manuscript out loud several times and voiced the various characters, we found it difficult to get the script exactly how we wanted it. For example, the speech of our Conrad character sounded stilted saying things like “I think there is something compelling about the way these two sentences sound.”

We were confident that the team at Big Time Attic could show the relationship between the famous writing duo, but we could not give the artists many interesting primary source images with which to work, as we usually liked to do when asking them to recreate the visual style of a particular period in history, as we did in the “critical reading” chapter that incorporated the visual culture of the eighteenth-century abolitionist movement.

To paint a picture of the embodied interactions of Ford and Conrad, all we had to work with were letters and other pages from archives, such as the original manuscript of Heart of Darkness in Yale’s Beinecke Library.  Unfortunately, neither Conrad nor Ford had particularly interesting handwriting, and other than using “split screen” to show Conrad and Ford reading and responding, we did not have a compelling method for making their scenes of writing come to life.

Writers are often told to “murder your darlings” in the revision process, a phrase that actually comes from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch rather than F. Scott Fitzgerald, to whom it is popularly attributed.  Jonathan and I had to decide to murder the story of Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford to keep the chapter concise and focused in its storytelling; ultimately, our “darling” story of the collaboration [1] between these two literary greats could not be conveyed as effectively in the visual comics medium.


[1] Just as Jonathan and I collaborated together as writers composing a collectively produced work, Conrad and Ford wrote several jointly authored manuscripts http://www.noumenal.com/marc/jcfmf/.


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