Writing is easy, said Hemingway, you just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein. Editing is even easier: you keep cutting until you can see the bone. Re-writing, on the other hand, is hard. You have to take your baby into the bathroom and drown him in the tub.
Wow, writers sure take this stuff seriously.
Some people – those who have never written or those who are new to the game – think that you simply have an idea for a story, sit down and write it. You might need to cut a phrase here or there or maybe change one word for another but essentially whatever comes out is pretty much gold. I wish.
It is of course useful to plot out the story, do all the homework of character arcs and hone the three act structure and all that stuff. Or maybe you let the muse speak to you. You know where you’re starting and where you need to get to and the rest is just a matter of putting one word after another. But really, plotter or pantser, in the end you usually wind up with an ungainly mess. It’s a bit like driving at night, as E.L Doctorow put it, you can’t really see any more of the road than is caught in the immediate light of the headlamps but if you keep going you’re bound to wind up somewhere.
It just may not be where you need to be.
If you’re lucky, the story is all there, simply buried under a waste heap of verbiage but still there. You might be like a sculptor – knowing that somewhere in that block of stone is a statue and all you have to do is cut away the bits that aren’t part of the essential form. That was how Arthur Miller described writing “Death of a Salesman.” The first draft was over 800 pages long and he kept cutting and cutting. He claims he never added another word, simply removed the bits that didn’t belong and, voila!, he would up with one of the great classics of American theatre. Still long but not 800 pages long.
Hemingway did a lot of that, too. Read “Islands in the Stream” – uncompleted at his death and you can see the process in reverse as you go from the polished first third to the verbose and messy last quarter. Cut and cut and cut until you find the real thing.
But if you’re not lucky, cutting – editing – is not enough. You have to re-write, which for the most part consists of un-writing the story. They say the greatest tool of the modern writer is the backspace key. Or the delete button. I’ve on many occasions highlighted ten or twenty pages and simply consigned them to oblivion. It’s easier that way – no temptation to change my mind.
But I hate it. I still dream of writing the perfect sentence, the perfect paragraph, the perfect story. From my brain to the screen to some publication somewhere. It’s possible. I’m only sixty and I’ve only be writing for thirty years so maybe if I keep going as long as Robinson Davies, sometimes in the next thirty years I’ll finally get it right…. It was a dark and stormy night….
But that’s ten minutes.