I Can’t Understand How Anyone Can Write Without Rewriting Everything Over and Over Again

Leo Tolstoy? A. B. Goldenveizer? Apocryphal?

tolstoy10Dear Quote Investigator: November is National Novel Writing Month; a participant is supposed to commit to writing 50,000 words during the 30 days of the month. Sustaining that pace would be difficult for me because I am irresistibly drawn to rewriting. The brilliant Russian writer Leo Tolstoy once said something about feeling compelled to rewrite his own published words whenever he saw them. Are you familiar with this quotation? Would you please trace it?

Quote Investigator: In 1922 the diary of a Russian Music Professor named Aleksandr Borisovich Goldenveizer was published in Moscow. Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy and Goldenveizer had been friends for nearly 15 years, and in the pages of the diary Tolstoy was referred to with the initials L. N. In 1923 selections from the diary were translated into English and then published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Goldenveizer recorded a remark made by Tolstoy about his compulsion to rewrite. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Yesterday L. N. spoke of the process of creative work:
“I can’t understand how any one can write without rewriting everything over and over again. I scarcely ever re-read my published writings, but if by chance I come across a page, it always strikes me: All this must be rewritten; this is how I should have written it.

Tolstoy also made clear to Goldenveizer that he did not trust the judgement of his audience about the completeness of his work:

“I am always interested to trace the moment, which comes quite early, when the public is satisfied; and the artist thinks: They say it is good; but it is just at this point that the real work begins!”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1948 a compilation titled “Writers on Writing” was published. The pieces were selected by the novelist and critic Walter Ernest Allen, and he included the words of Tolstoy that were excerpted above. 2

In 1964 “The New York Times” printed a set of quotations about writing that were chosen from an edition of Walter Allen’s compendium. The article title was “Treasure Chest”, and Tolstoy’s comments were further disseminated: 3

Rewriting

I can’t understand how anyone can write without rewriting everything over and over again. I scarcely ever re-read my published writings, but if by chance I come across a page, it always strikes me: All this must be rewritten; this is how I should have written it.

I am always interested to trace the moment, which comes quite early, when the public is satisfied; and the artist thinks: They say it is good; but it is just at this point that the real work begins!
LEO TOLSTOY

In 1968 a pedagogical work titled “A Writer Teaches Writing: A Practical Method of Teaching Composition” by Donald M. Murray was released. A chapter at the end of the book reprinted quotations from prominent authors, and the first paragraph above with an ascription to Tolstoy was included. 4

The words have continued to circulate. In 2013 “Twenty-One Genres and How to Write Them” by Brock Dethier used the following as an epigraph to its thirtieth chapter: 5

I can’t understand how anyone can write without rewriting everything over and over again. —Leo Tolstoy

In conclusion, there is good evidence that Tolstoy did speak about a strong desire to rewrite passages of his own works. The most accurate version of the quotation is found in the 1923 work or in the original 1922 Russian work. The quotation was presented by a friend named Goldenveizer; hence, it was indirect.

Image Notes: Color portrait of Leo Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana circa 1908 from Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky via Wikimedia Commons. Writing paper and paper balls from condesign at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Susie Thurman who asked about this saying on the Wombats discussion list which led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to S. M. Colowick who located the key 1923 citation. Thanks also to the other discussants including Jeanne Schramm, Ted McKosky, and Jerilyn Marshall.)

Notes:

  1. 1923, Talks with Tolstoi by A. B. Goldenveizer (Aleksandr Borisovich Goldenveizer), Translated by S. S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf, Chapter: 1899, Quote Page 26, Published by Leonard & Virginia Woolf at The Hogarth Press, Richmond, England. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1948, Writers On Writing, Selected and Introduced by Walter Allen (Walter Ernest Allen), Chapter 15: The Novelist at Work, Quote Page 232, Published by Phoenix House, London. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1964 October 25, New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, Treasure Chest: Rewriting by Leo Tolstoy, Quote Page BR2, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  4. 1968, A Writer Teaches Writing: A Practical Method of Teaching Composition by Donald M. Murray (Donald Morison Murray), Chapter 39: What the Masters Know, Quote Page 244, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  5. 2013, Twenty-One Genres and How to Write Them by Brock Dethier, (Alternate Book Title: 21 Genres and How to Write Them), (Epigraph to Chapter 30), Unnumbered Page, Utah State University Press: An Imprint of University Press Colorado, Boulder, Colorado. (Google Books Preview)