On Authors (Over)Sharing Their Writing Regrets

When authors speak about their work, it’s kind of like hearing a slight intervention from a God building worlds. We love an interesting tidbit about the writing process (Truman Capote told The Paris Review that he wrote only when laying down) and frustrations with writing agony (Kurt Vonnegut, according to his Times obituary, noted that writing was like being an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth). We’ll gobble up whole books of recommendations, like Stephen King’s On Writing. But, then again, when J.K. Rowling announced that Harry and Hermione should have ended up together earlier this year, I grimaced. I didn’t want to know what Rowling wished she had written, because what was done was done. Of course, the great, wide internets shared all of their opinions, including angry versions of mine. Eventually, I decided that maybe the feeling of that grimace would go away after I distracted myself with other books and other authors, but it stayed through the summer and into the fall.

This is another great example of when an author over-shared, but there have been other authors with this issue. The New York Times pointed out that Mark Twain wished The Adventures of Tom Sawyer had been written in first person. Peter Benchley has been quoted wishing he had never portrayed sharks as vicious monsters of horror in Jaws. When an avid reader reads the writer’s regrets, it changes her viewpoint. The greatness of a piece, a character, a romance, or a bold action suddenly changes context from a piece of a story into somebody’s authorial choice that shouldn’t have happened.

Now that I’m writing and reading simultaneously all of the time these days, I can understand the problem here. It’s a great sign of restraint and understanding when an author agrees to let a book out into the world, and then never voices regret. There really isn’t a question whether or not an author has regrets about a scene or two, a character’s fate, or the pace of a chapter. A piece of work that has been agonized over, edited and analyzed will always have those little corners that could have been smoothed and altered with another month of work (or another year). At one time, every book was a perpetual piece of work and probably still feels like one to the author even after it has been whisked away, printed and digitized. But, that doesn’t mean the author has to tell us—the readers—about it. Even if he or she really, really wants to.

Oddly enough, I liked Harry and Ginny together as a couple. Their relationship felt like an unexpected twist in what could have been predictable. And Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer would have been a completely different book if we had experienced the boy’s interior thoughts during his own funeral. That’s ok, though—the stories are still fantastic as they are. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was loved anyway. And while it’s understandable that Peter Benchley felt some guilt and became an ocean conservationist, wasn’t Jaws supposed to be the extreme example of the shark species? There’s something important about effective horror taking what worries us and making it extreme.

So, while we love to hear from authors, and love to know their inspirations, their frustrations, their moments of slamming a head on a keyboard, sometimes the questions should be paused and the books should just be read and written.  I think my grimace will go away when I get the chance to read the Harry Potter collection again and relive what life I gave them in my head. At least nobody is pulling a Kafka and demanding that his writing be burned before the world sees it. That we don’t need.

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