Revision: What a Slow Agonizing Pain in the Tuckus!

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
– Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

I put this quote here to start this post about what I feel is one of the most laborious and difficult tasks a creator has before him or her: that of refining, editing, and revision. Why is it so hard? If the answer were universal and easily applied, I’d publish a self-help book for writers and be a millionaire. Countless people already try this.

So, I can only speculate on my own difficulty with revision. I consider my “weapon” of choice to be that of narrative filmmaking, but I have produced quite a bit of prose and a bit less of purely visual art. Each process has its own revisionist pains, and all are experienced differently. But as writing for me is part of both prose and the early stages of filmmaking, (and it’s what I’ve been doing the most of lately), I’ll have to give more perspective on this as the wounds of revision are fresh and nasty.

1. Starting.
Starting is hard. Staring everyday (and I mean everyday of the week) on the same project is harder. For me, it’s about the tension I often feel as a writer, when just sitting down at my computer, and that nagging critical inner voice starts to creep in to set standards that are beyond expectations. She’s like the mean coach in middle school PE that made us tweens run a mile while she was sneaking puffs on her Marlboros. That little critical voice is a bitch, so some meditation sometimes helps before writing. Ten to twenty minutes, while my two cats battle it out over laptime. (I wonder if the Buddha had the same problem.) While trying to meditate and avoid feline distractions, I attempt to recognize the voice and the tension, and actively say “I see you, you little cunt,” which seems to sometimes be a good way to mute the inner critic.  Also, a few glasses of red wine, or any available tasty alcoholic beverage, will usually put that critic right to sleep, and (unfortunately) me a short time after.

Toni Morrison

2. Choosing.
You’ve gotten all the way to the “finish line.” (Yay, open up that bottle of Andre if you are a poor artist like me, but if you have the means, go for the Krut Brut Vintage, 1988.) There are now words on paper that was once as white and bare as a Little Debbie Zebra snack cake. Notes from your trusted colleagues are available. Now what? Well, it’s time to pick up your machete and “kill those darlings,” hack them to tiny bits and shove them in a garbage bag. This I think is inevitably easier to do with script writing than with prose. There is so much liberty in prose that I feel does not exist in narrative filmmaking, and a definite page number limit for screen plays that isn’t really as stringent for prose.

So. What’s working? Can you actually identify it? Why is it working? Keep that.

What isn’t working? Why does it suck? Does it need to be in this draft then? No? Then delete that shit!

Sometimes I can’t answer these questions. Sometimes I am just too close to the script or story, that I just can’t choose. I find that putting away the draft for a little while, a week or longer, and starting something else creatively is immensely helpful. I’ve had lulls between drafts where I’ve written other things or gotten back into photography, certified myself in Pomeranian dog grooming techniques (joking), etc. as a break from wordsmithing. Coming back to the script or novel after this hiatus has allowed me to really see things that I was not able to see before hand. A nice vacation to a foreign country is also a great distraction from the burdens of your craft, but unfortunately, not in this woman’s budget. Alternatively, for the ultimate poor artist’s tip for creative perspective, you can do what I sometimes do, and put away your drafts for a decade or more, and then return to them. (For more details, I’ve already blogged about my file cabinet repository below.) A word of caution: sometimes it’s rather humbling to see the crap that was spilling from your printer when you were in your fresh 20s, and it might make you forlornly question your current abilities as a writer. Hopefully, some little gem will be amongst the wasteland of your mind. A hard little diamond nugget shining through the poo.

Here’s a nice Neil Gaiman quote on this idea:

“The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.” — Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman

For How to Eat Pho, Martha Lynn returned some very big questions for my main characters that I could not answer for days. I’m clearer on the answers to these questions now, but it’s still not all there. I can say that in these moments of frustration, at the point of tears, just putting something out there, as outlandish as it may be, at least gave me something to shape and form. A sculptor cannot sculpt without clay, even if it’s homemade playdough. So, give yourself some words, even if they would make a sixth grader think you are dumb, so you can do something with them.

3. Knowing when to stop.
My co-producer wants to pre-film a “perfect” draft of How to Eat Pho. Well, this will never happen. There is no such thing as a perfect script, because defining perfection is a subjective thing. Your mom’s idea of perfection is not yours (hopefully). This is why, no matter what anyone says about your work, it’s up to you to figure out when it’s “ready.” If you are constantly revising, based on what everyone is saying about your work with whom you share it, you will have lost the core spirit of your writing, its energy and vitality, and you’ll have something you no longer recognize. It’s like over-whipping a batch of mashed potatoes until they become a sticky and pliable mound of starchy goo.

So, after all this stupid ranting I’ve done here, sometimes it just comes down to doing it, avoiding these stupid “how tos,” and just practice, practice, practice.  And remind yourself when you are ready to light your script or novel on fire and wish it to slowly rot a painful death in the recycle bin of hell, that everything, even the process of revision, as much as it sucks, will end.