Forty-seven endings. That’s the number published in this new edition of A Farewell to Arms (Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2012) [I’d put a link to it, but there isn’t anything about this on their website. Really. Instead we have a book about sister wives and a Mick Jagger bio].
According to news stories, Hemingway said he re-wrote the ending of this iconic novel 39 times, but I guess he underestimated.
I love this story. Not, A Farewell to Arms, which I can’t remember ever reading. And not this story from a publishing point-of-view, because what is this really except the book version of re-packaging? The same as Nabisco making Oreo’s smaller or filling them with peanut butter or mint, because, well, because how could we possibly resist?
I love this story because it’s more evidence that stories do not “write themselves.” That our most famous writers didn’t have a direct line to a writing goddess who fed them the fabulousness that ended up in their manuscripts.
I love it because endings are damned hard and you are damned lucky if you get one that is right the first [dozen] time[s].
Writing fiction is about making decisions. Like going to the optometrist. Is this better? Or that? How about this? Over and over until it comes into focus.
And yet, I always wonder as I’m revising a story for the umpteenth time if it means that story wasn’t good enough to begin with. Or if it’s become bedraggled. Shopworn. If the handling will show. Has it simply been redone so much that my smudgy fingerprints will be evident in the final product?
I wonder that as I’m revising, but then there comes that quiet assurance when a story has finally arrived. After it’s undergone the kind of change that it always needed. It’s not the euphoric feeling that you get when the first draft is done. Euphoria is a young feeling. The feeling you get when you’ve reworked an ending 47 times and now KNOW you have the right one is an old soul feeling. A coffee-wired, brow-sweat, pain-in-the-coccyx laced contentment, but still contentment.
So good for Hemingway for being famous enough to have a novel re-published years after his death to remind us working writers that it doesn’t matter how much hemming and hawing you have to do. Just get it right.