Rewriting

If you’re a student of mine, or you’ve been on a course I’ve tutored, you’ll be tired of hearing me banging on about rewriting, so below you will find a number of other writers telling you how they go about their craft. They have done this without being paid and not necessarily because they are chums of mine – although some are. They have written to tell you something they feel is important about our work and about being a writer – that impulse, you will find, tends to override all kinds of other considerations, even those of ego, which goodness knows many writers are not entirely without. If you believe there is in any way such a thing as a community of writers, I feel this is where it lies – in a common understanding of what we do, what it’s like, how much it hurts, how magnificent it is, why we care, why we try to keep it all going – for others as well as ourselves.

Among other things, you will find the writers here being honest about one of the most naked times in their work. You will read descriptions of the hours we spend flinging ourselves in the direction of perfection without hope of success, alone and yet in insistent imagined company, sometimes bewildered, sometimes exalted. You will also see the joy in this, the intensity, the desire to grow, to fail better. You will also get a taste of what you will probably already recognise – the sense that we are rarely as alive as when we are fighting to improve our work, to find its name, its purpose, to make it thrive and go forth to the minds of other. There is great joy here, great delight, serendipity, signs, wonders and wild endeavour. There is also a great deal of work.

And, for the record, I rewrite all the time. For stories and novels there will be between 3 and 7 major rewrites, all manner of tinkerings and tweaks as I go forward and then after the work has come to something like a close. I rewrite work that has been previously published in magazines and I rewrite after the editor has said he finds the work acceptable for publication. I rewrite until I am sick of it and then do it some more. I switch from on-screen, to on paper, to out loud (I use work in progress at readings) to out loud in my head.

Being unpublished is no fun at all, but being published with work you now find embarrassing to read aloud or touch without gloves and a long stick is nothing to marvellous, either – trust me on this, I know.
For drama, plays and screenplays I would probably give the same rewrite numbers, but I am occasionally beset by other people who feel they must become involved in the creative process – so more rewrites – or inspired by performers, collaborators, accidents, voices, locations and technical challenges – so more rewrites.

Figures would be the same for creative non-fiction. My journalism gets slightly less attention and is therefore less good.

The caveat here would be that it is possible to rewrite compulsively until the work you have seems okay simply because it looks familiar. And it is all too possible to rewrite blindly, in the manner of a steward rearranging the buffet as the Titanic goes down. Part of the key to effective rewriting is an ability to get enough distance from your work to be able to see it as a whole, to sense its heart, where it really should be going, what it’s deeply about, who its characters truly are. However well you prepare – and you should prepare well – you will know more about all these things at the end of your first large pass. Seeing your work as a critical stranger would, or as an intervening surgeon would – or however you wish to view your rewriting self – is vital. You also need to be able to close right in to comb through the work, syllable by syllable, to get the fabric of it right: the details, the music. This isn’t easy, but it is possible and it is worth it. If you don’t try to find your own version of doing this, it will be almost impossible to discover how far you can go as a writer.

And if you haven’t pulled an all-nighter and written until you can’t remember who you are and produced work you couldn’t possibly have produced and been ambushed by insights and dragged up mountains and over cliffs by ideas that don’t even feel like your own, then you’ve missed a treat. Just my opinion.
Here are the other writers.

Almost all of them asked to see this document when it was finished.

Thanks again for their help.

John Burnside: poetry, short stories, novels, non-fiction, journalism

johnburnsideThe Burnside Method (this does not translate into a number, because it varies so much, but it may be of anecdotal interest, or possibly serve as an indicator if squared then multiplied by a number between 13 and 27)

I think about the thing for a very long time, (two years, minimum) Then write it. Then, given that luxury, I take a break from it, and then rewrite intensively over a short period, (a month or so) sometimes on paper, sometimes in my head. I stay up all night, getting a paragraph right, then stay up the next night rescuing it from the disaster of the night before. I think one should sacrifice everything for the prose, because a book may be good (entertaining, instructive, funny, whatever) for all kinds of reasons, but the true test of its *truth* – le mensonge qui dit la verite – is the quality of the prose. If I could discover the truth of my subject – its deepest rhythms and textures, its soul, as it were – then I believe that this would give rise to perfect prose.

I say: aim for that, no matter what it takes. Fail, try again, fail better etc. In other words, I imagine how many rewrites old Samuel B did, and raise him a couple, (on the theory that, if it took him that many to do it, it’s bound to take some lesser mortal a whole lot more.)