Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"A Writer's Mind (Enter At Your Own Risk)"

I’ve been writing things for public consumption for over forty years. And yet, as I recently discovered, I am still capable of being surprised, bordering on dismayed, by my own process.

This jolt of awareness is a good thing, and not just for writers. You’re in an habitual rut, wherein you proceed on “automatic pilot”, consciously oblivious to what you are doing. When your process is somehow brought to your attention, you may say, “Okay, that’s what I’m doing”, and continue doing it. Or you may decide that you want to do things differently. Your habitual rut remains available to you, but as a result of its illumination, you at least now have a choice.

Hey, Earlo, what are you talking about?


Recently, I decided to reprise a post about gift giving. You may have read it. The post is called “Your Presents Are Requested” (December 8), and it is really quite good, one of the more satisfyingly executed pieces I have ever written. In keeping with seasonal modalities, you might even say it glows.

Having decided to re-post “Your Presents Are Requested”, I recall thinking, “This will be an easy writing day.” All I had to do was to pull up the original text on Microsoft Word, and “copy and paste” it over to my blog. (An alternative would be to link you to the original post, though this is not an alternative for me, as I have forgotten how to do that.)

Of course, I knew – having been me all my life – that I would not be able to simply re-publish the material, without first reading it over. I would be eminently possible – and it in fact turned out to be the case – that the distance of time – I had written “Your Presents Are Requested” a year earlier – would inspire certain improvements. Nothing major. A word-change here, some tightening there. It was already good. I figured, twenty minutes, tops, and I’d be on with the rest of my day.

Two hours later, I was still at it. Adding lines, sharpening attitudes, clarifying the concept. It was fun to get back into it. It was gratifying to come up with the changes. I was unquestionably making it better. I loved that I could do that.

The disturbing shadow over the process, however, was that, when I originally wrote, revised and cut-and-pasted “Your Presents Are Requested” over to my blog,

I thought I was finished.

I thought it was as good as I could make it.

I thought the writing task had been completed, the product polished to perfection, ready to be shipped to an adoring readership.

I sincerely believed that. And, as it turns out, I was at “two hours and counting” worth of wrong.

Wait. There’s more.

As part of my tweaking and tinkering, I found myself not only adding lines – lines I had not previously come up with but now found totally essential – I was also taking lines away from one character and transferring them to a different character.


First, to remind you – or, if you haven’t read “Your Presents Are Requested”, to tell you for the first time – the characters portrayed in “Your Presents Are Requested” were named after the gifts they were bringing to the newborn, and soon to be something special, manger baby, those being: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Now suddenly, as I was revising the dialogue, I found myself determining, and with a steely certainty that, for example,

“Myrrh wouldn’t say that.”

And I gave the line to Frankincense.

Who would.

I was legitimately taken aback by this realization. My decisiveness seemed entirely unjustified. I had written “Your Presents Are Requested” a year ago, and hadn’t thought about it since. I had hastily created three characters out of thin air, arbitrarily, and with minimal consideration. They simply serviced the storytelling.

Yet now, lightningly quickly, and with questionable justification, these characters had somehow become ossified in granite.

“Myrrh wouldn’t say that.”

I was confident that was true.

Me. Who had so recently misled myself as to how much (how little?) adjustment the original blog post required. Me, Mr. “Twenty minutes – my ass!” trusting myself to make definitive adjudications as to what three characters I had fleetingly constructed would and would not say.

Wherefrom derives such certainty?

Despite the screaming evidence of its unreliability, I fall back yet again on relying on my own provenly error-prone judgment.

Why would you do that?

I have to, Italics Man.

It’s all I’ve got.


Mac said...

Belated thanks for yesterday's response to my question "Why do you no longer write comedy pilots?"

Very interesting reply and, depressingly, I understand exactly what you mean. I find myself going back to old Frasier or Larry Sanders eps more often that I go looking for new comedy. Not that I care about genital/sexual references - done well, like in the best of South Park/Family Guy, they can be hilarious. I just get tired of shows where a mention of the word "vagina" seems to be sufficient in itself as a punchline.

Anyway, thanks for the reply). Hope you never lose the urge to blog - it's a fine daily read.

Alan said...

Speaking of going back to the scene of the creative crime….
I was reading (on Playbill.com) an appreciation of the new “Follies” recording, and it was mentioned that during the session, Stephen Sondheim changed a word in a song, and it was recorded with the improved lyric.
Sondheim is quoted as saying something to the effect of, "I finally figured out the right word after forty years."
If it helps, you’re not alone.

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; perfection, what is it good for?


Johnny Walker said...

I look forward to "Your Presents Are Requested 2012".

Actually I've done this several times myself, and it hasn't taken a year, either. I've been absolutely and totally convinced I loved something, and then gone back a few months later and ended up re-writing huge portions of it... And being absolutely, 100% sure that I was improving it.

It's an interesting process, and I'm glad we can witness it here.