Thursday, May 10, 2012

"Thinking More About Rewriting"

A lot of writers think writing is rewriting, the meticulous “fine tuning” distinguishing the pros from the wannabes.  Others, at least during rewrite situations, would pitch a joke, it would get a laugh, and they would insist it be left unexamined, under the assumption that the joke had emerged from a reliable place, and as such, could not possibly be improved. 

Here’s the interesting part, or at least hopefully interesting enough to deserve a posting.  The rewrite night replacement joke was only necessary, because the writer believed the original joke – which emerged from the same “reliable place” – was funny, and it turned out, it wasn’t.

So what the heck’s going on?

You’re an experienced writer.  You know what you’re doing.  And that’s not just a personal opinion.  Other people’s actions, such as hiring and, on occasion, acknowledging you with an award, have confirmed this evaluation of competence. 

The thing is, as competent as you are, at the moment when you are getting it wrong, you sincerely believe you are getting it right.  The joke pops up in your mind, you erupt in laughter, your brain tells you, “That’s the one”, and you enthusiastically welcome it into the script.

It turns out that that joke was no good.

Raising the question, how could you, an experienced professional, have deluded yourself so thoroughly? 

Sure, you may argue, even the best ballplayers strike out once in a while.  But there’s a difference.  Those “best ballplayers” are struck out by somebody else – the pitcher. 

In writing, you are the only player in the game.  By generating a bad joke that you thought was good, you are essentially striking yourself out.

Now, here comes rewrite night, and the same instinct, talent and experience that manufactured the dud are now being drawn upon to repair the damage. 

How exactly does that work? 

“I think I shall call upon my other talent, not the one that assured me that the egg I laid was a five-star soufflé, but the infallible talent, the talent that never gets it wrong.  Oh, wait.  I only have the one!

If your talent misled you in the first place, how is it you are trusting it again? 

That answer, of course, is, “What else am I going to do?  Go back to Law School?”

As a writer, I have to believe that what I am putting down is on the money; otherwise, I would keep thinking until a superior option came to mind.

However, while one part of my brain is saying, “That’ll do, Pig”, another part of my brain – the ego-unimpeded objective part – leaves the door open for a possible upgrade. 

For me, writing has always been like sledgehammering through layers of granite, till I finally hack my way to the gold.  After years of scriptwriting, I realized, that, as inadequate as it made me feel, and as time-consuming as it was, I needed to proceed in stages – an okay idea (even though, at the time, I thought it was the answer), to a better idea (ditto to the previous brackets), to an even better idea (more ditto), to a better idea still (and ditto once again), until finally…

I struck pay dirt.

What I’m referring to is a process of creative incrementalism, every improvement standing on the shoulders of its predecessor, pointing the way to the ultimate solution. 

They all felt spontaneous.  But, in fact, they were just advancing steps to the answer, which was also spontaneous, but was clearly the best of the bunch.

Where I’d invariably come a cropper was during rewrite situations, working with writers relying on a different process.  Their experience told them that their first utterance was invariably their best. 

Such writers did not take kindly to “tinkering.”  To them, their first pitch was the mother lode.  Further examination, to make sure there was nothing mother lodier, was an annoying waste of time.   

I look back on the discomfort I felt, when my “Sledgehammer” approach came in conflict with “The first one is the best one.”   I felt frustrated by their impatience to move on, and stung by their eye-rolling rebukes. 

I also felt guilty that I was holding people back, and that, indirectly, I was implying they were too easy on themselves, by going with the first thing that came to their minds. 

Different writers.  Different processes.

Why didn’t I think of that then? 

1 comment:

samuel.x.killer said...

Thanks Earl! I just got some notes back on a script which was basically "the jokes aren't bad, there are just no jokes" - and there were supposed to be a few at least... This is exactly the post I needed! Thanks for taking the time to write, I always enjoy your writing advice.