Thursday, March 13, 2008

"Getting It Right"

Okay, so here’s a confession. Last week, I went into the archives – or whatever you call them – of my blog and I rewrote one of my already published posts. You may find that strange. I did. Nobody is likely to read that post again. Nobody. Ever. And yet, I thought of a better word than the one I had written, and I felt compelled to go back and delete the word I’d thought was the right word and replace it with what I now believe is really the right word.

I’m a little ashamed of myself. But not so ashamed that I’m unwilling to share what I did with my readers. The real “ashamed” stuff, that’s not coming out. Unless I’m completely out of material.

No, never.

I do this all the time – rewriting. I try to make whatever it is better, nudging it ever closer to perfection. It’s frustrating. Every time I write something, I think, “That’s it.” But it’s never “it.” There’s always an “it” that’s a little more “it.” Till you finally get there.

And that’s the point – I believe there’s a “there.” I believe, and I may be wrong, that there’s actually a “right” in these matters, and that you can get there, if you just keep at it. A lot of people disagree about that. Especially in the creative arena. They think “right” is subjective. One person’s “right” is another person’s “wrong”, meaning there’s no objective right or wrong. All there is is a countless accumulation of differing opinions.

This is a central battle between liberals and conservatives, primarily in the behavioral arena. Conservatives believe in objective standards of right and wrong. Liberals contextualize. Wrong but with an explanation; or not wrong at all, but actually “right for them”, in the context of their circumstances. All that’s for another post, which I’ll warn you about ahead of time, so you can avoid it. Today, I’m focusing on writing.

My confession continues.

Not only do I constantly rewrite myself, I also rewrite other people. Even though none of them asked me to. I guess it’s the way writers are. Maybe painters do the same thing. They study a painting in a gallery or museum, and they think, “The tree’s in the wrong place.” Maybe if you’re an expert artist, you can actually say something like that. Maybe you can’t. Maybe “tree placement” is simply a subjective question of “Artist’s Choice.” But if it is, how do you distinguish between good artists and less good artists? Or is there no such thing as that either? Then again, if it’s all just subjective, how come some artists’ paintings cost more to buy? Is the price predicated on tree-placement ability, or is it just hype?


Back to writing.

I rewrite movies while I’m watching them. I rewrote Knocked Up a little, even though I thought it was a very good movie. I only rewrite very good movies. The bad ones, even rewritten, will still pretty much stink. But good movies, movies edging towards perfection, somehow, inspire me to help them to make it all the way.

It isn’t major, my Knocked Up “fix.” But I think it would have helped. Maybe I’m wrong about that. You tell me.

Okay. The woman’s in labor in the hospital room and the doctor’s making a fuss about anesthetic. The guy, the Rogen guy, takes the doctor into the hall and lays down the law. Then, the woman’s sister comes in and starts making a fuss, and the Rogen guy takes her in the hall and lays down the law to her. Two scenes, exactly the same. To me, that wasn’t the best way to handle one of the most important moments in the story.

They did the “lay down the law” scene twice; I’d have done it once. To me, and maybe to the Immutable Rules of Writing, but, most importantly, to the rule of the audience’s emotionally responding to that significant moment, once would have been better.

So there’s that.

I also rewrite song lyrics. And sometimes, the melodies, though I’m not as confident about my melody rewriting. That could be subjective. Although it seems like the best tunes sound exactly the way they should. Imagine your favorite song. Now, imagine it being different. You can’t. They got it right. That’s what makes it a great song. That and what you were doing the first time you heard it. That stuff, I leave alone.

But I do rewrite lyrics. Lyrics is just writing with rhymes at the end, so, technically, it’s my field. Which lyrics do I rewrite? Well, for the past couple of years, I’ve been taking piano lessons. I bring my teacher songs I like, and he devises arrangements within my playing ability, so I can accompany myself when I sing. I love to sing. Maybe more than I love to do anything else. I don’t have a great voice, and breathing problems keep me from holding notes too long, but none of that matters. I’m singing for myself. And to me, I’m the best singer in the world. I’m also fortunate that my wife likes the way I sing too. In singing, I’m the King of my House.

Recently, I’ve been studying Rainbow Connection, by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher. It’s a good song, and my daughter asked me to learn it, so I did. The tune is infectiously catchy and the tone is wistfully upbeat – all good.

But there is one section – the “bridge” section – where the song goes

All of us under its spell

We know that it’s probably magic…

As I once said, in another context, “No good that one.”

The lyric doesn’t make sense. You can’t “know” that something is “probably” anything. You can’t. Knowing connotes certainly; “probably” connotes uncertainty. Uncertainty’s what “probably’s” all about. You can’t be certain about something of which you’re uncertain. Unless you’re certain in your uncertainty. And that’s not what Rainbow Connection is about.

What about this instead?

All of us under its spell

We know that it’s got to be magic…

Isn’t that better? A tiny, little change, and it hurts nothing. It scans musically, it’s lilting, it’s positive. More positive than “We know that it’s probably…” Now, we’ve got two certainties: “Know” and “got to be.” That’s definitely an improvement. It’s consistent. It’s melodic…

And it’s right.

Isn’t it?

Okay. I’m aware that by criticizing other people’s work, especially successful work, I’m open to the multiple charges of “snooty, superior and jealous.”

“Hey, Man, where do you get off, criticizing a fabulous movie, and a lot of people’s favorite Muppet song? If you think you’re so great, why don’t you go write your own blockbuster movie and classic song? You big Loser!”

I’ve got to be nicer to myself when I write the other guy’s dialogue. The thing is, I can’t help rewriting. I see some written stuff – mine or other people’s – and my mind immediately kicks into action. Am I jealous of other people’s success? Always. But “snooty and superior”? That’s not the point. I have an enormous respect for talent. And when their work advances towards perfection, it’s like, “Come on! Let’s get there!”

Also, I’m fully prepared to have it work both ways. I fix what you write; you fix what I write. Judd Apatow, Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher:

Be my guests.


Veggie Gal said...

Oh god, you're rewriting all our comments in your head, aren't you? ;-)

Tim Susman said...

I do that too! I rewrote the ending to "Big Fish." I tend to rewrite larger, in plot and stuff, rather than individual lines, but there are lines that stick out to me as awkward that I need to change...

Anonymous said...

I would have rewritten the, yes, Oscar-winning exchange in "Juno," where the father asks, "Who's the kid?" And she goes on to relay that she hasn't met the baby yet! The father was referring to the kid who knocked her up. To my ears, her response was contrived, very written sounding, and would never have happened in real life.

Slightly more believable...

Who's the kid?

What do you mean? Is it mine?
(short and sweet, shows she's confused, but a bit more believable within the context of her dad's remark.)

Okay, maybe this too needs to be rewritten. But it's still better than the too self-conscious and unbelievable rant she went on.

HART said...

I got fired from Hallmark simply because I insisted June rhymed with apple.

RAC said...

I'm currently rewriting episodes of Gilligan's Island in my head:

[Dream sequence: "Doctor" Gilligan is on trial, accused of being Mr. Hyde]

Mary Ann Summers: [as a coarse Eliza Dolittle type] Just a poor cockney flower girl, that's all Ah is! But Ah owes everything to Doctor Gilligan. 'E taught me to walk, and to talk, and to smoke ganja, like a regular LADY! 'E give me real CLASS 'e did!

[blows nose loudly]

emily said...

Sorry to be so late but I was rewriting this. Is it better now?

Murr said...

Whenever I indulge in rewriting movies, it's usually for ones that have everything in place, a great idea, but they fumbled the ball. This means I recompose a lot of movie sequels.

angel said...

I do the same thing, revisiting old posts and if I see something I don't like, I correct or change it. I like to think that someone, someday, might drill down my posts and actually read this entry that I have corrected.

The other thing to think about is that you might use this old post for some other purpose. I have had this happen several times and heaven forbid, the post go out to it's new use, as less then my best effort.

James said...

Just to address the start of this post--it's been well over a year and a half since you wrote this post and I just read it today. Unless you delete this blog, someone will read it years from now.

I have this same problem with Bill Goldman's books/essays about Hollywood. He writes as if the books won't be read 2 years after it was released.

This stuff lasts a lot longer than you think.