Vicky and I were out on our patio last night. Relaxing. Talking. Dying for a smoke. (Me, not her.)
I was talking to her about the progress on my present book, which is seeming more and more like the most masturbatory exercise in fiction writing – sex and death all the way – but a hell of a lot of fun just the same. “Somehow, I got my main character up on a rooftop and I’ve set the building on fire. I have no idea how that happened or where I’m going with it.”
“See? That part I just don’t understand,” she said to me.
Well, the thing is, I don’t understand it, either. But that’s how it works. That’s what makes it all worthwhile. It is what makes it FUN.
There’s a similar moment when you’re acting that comes on you after you know your lines. You’re in a performance and all of a sudden you are no longer playing the part, you are the part. And the words are coming out of you like it was your own idea. This doesn’t happen all the time, mind you. But when it does… it’s FUN.
So, I thought I’d talk about this today because something else has been troubling me of late… I’ll get to that in a minute.
So, what am I talking about? How is it that you (as the writer) can be surprised by your own story or that you (as the actor) can be surprised by your part? You know, that story you’ve been thinking about for months or that part you’ve been rehearsing for just as long. It doesn’t seem to make sense, really. In fact, it sounds downright counterintuitive.
… yes, well, that’s what makes it magic.
And it really is. That’s why so many people want to be artists, because of the magic. I can tell you that this moment also occurs when you’re in a band, and suddenly all of the members are acting as one and it’s totally spontaneous. I’m sure the same thing occurs in painting and in dance and in cooking, which is also an art form, after all.
Here’s the thing. You know it and you know you know it. You’ve brought yourself up to the keyboard or the stage or whatever and you have rehearsed or prepared in some way to such a degree that you are ready. Now, the next part may strike some people differently, but this is what happens to me – then, you ignore everything. A part of you says, “Yes, of course, all that preparation was useful but why don’t we just do it… THIS WAY!”
I imagine that happens to me on stage somewhere around my eyes. I know, thinking back on my last performance in “Something To Hide”, it began when I got a glass in my hand (and, trust me, with all the drinking I did in that show, it didn’t take long). My character held his drink differently than I did so I knew when I held my glass in a certain way HE was in control. What happens to the rehearsing? Well, you’ve done it so many times that it’s a part of you, isn’t it? You can be comfortable taking your flight of fancy because you know how to fly, you see?
So, what about this guy up on the burning roof and that other thing I haven’t mentioned yet? Well, first let’s get the guy off the roof. See, I knew what this book was going to be about for a long time. It’s a very basic story: zombies. Okay? Of course, it has that La Salle twist but I knew all about it. And that’s probably why I put the guy on the roof! One thing to keep in mind about writing, is that I get to work all of my muscles: writer, actor, director, producer, set designer, prop guy, grip. Everything. So, like with acting, I prepare and then – zing – I go THAT WAY!
The FUN is not in the preparation. Strangely enough, the FUN is in defying that preparation, saying, “You thought that was good? Just wait!” Stepping as close to the edge of the stage without falling off. Risking failure. That’s where the real FUN lies.
Now, as an unpublished novelist, I should warn you that this could all be very, very wrong. I could suck the proverbial mule. Okay? Don’t listen to me!
Which brings me to my other issue. I’ve been reading a lot about REWRITING lately. All the experts seem to stress and push and sledgehammer you with the idea that once you’ve written something, you must immediately doubt yourself so fiercely that you throw away what you’ve just written and REWRITE IT.
… sounds goofy to me.
Now, I will grant you that I think some rewriting is important. I’ve done quite a bit in my time. Still, with just about everything I write, I usually know what I’m looking for enough so that my rewrites change only about 10% of the total written work. Is 10% too much? Too little? I don’t know. Again, I have not seen one novel published. Not one. Not a sausage. Bugger all.
Unfortunately, I’m beginning to think that this old dog is running out of tricks he can learn. If someone told me that, as an artist, my job is to play it safe, not only would I not learn how, I would not WANT to learn how. I like heading into the darkness and seeing where it goes. And if an expert – a mother-fucking, best-selling novelist – told me that rewrites should, as a rule, change 80% of the original draft, I would just have to resign myself to never being published.
All I can say is, it’s like being in love. You know what’s right and what’s wrong and you often just don’t care.
It’s just more fun this way.