Revision notes – writing is all about rewriting (1) Some differences between theatre and prose

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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.
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(Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of Fiction.” The Paris Review. Interview, 1956)
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Perhaps I’m perverse, but I love rewriting. It can be desperate and infuriating and impossible, plunging me into teeth-grinding, ulcer-inducing frustration, but when it comes out  ‘right’, which it does, eventually, nothing else gives me that sense of completion, of  satisfaction from getting the words right.
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And getting the words right involves so many factors – not just dialogue, or syntax and grammar, or what’s known mysteriously as ‘good writing’ – but a plethora of other elements including pace, rising tension, tempo-rhythm, fully-realised characters, a coherent narrative (if, indeed, a coherent narrative is the aim)… So much is involved in getting the words right, the phrase is appropriately Hemingway-esque: a masterly example of the understatement.
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Writing is all about rewriting. Writers serious about their work know there is no avoiding this fact.
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I am discovering, as I work increasingly across various media, that rewriting takes different forms, depending on the medium. My approach to rewriting prose is similar but different to my concerns when revising a play. There are criteria in common – dramaturgy/structure, hooking an audience/reader, compelling stories to tell, coherence and internal logic – but there are also discrepancies and clear partings of the way. Perhaps I’m mistaken in this, but I doubt few would say the following in a critique of a short story or novel, the feedback to a playwright I wrote today:
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‘There is a value in being messy – sometimes you have to lose control a little more – you have to be more emotionally messy and less controlled, which can also be thrilling for an audience.’
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Radio and novels are writing for an audience of one. It is the most intimate, sly, seductive of relationships – insinuating your ideas and your voice right inside the reader’s head, in the heart of their imaginations. Theatre is different. Traditionally it is a medium for an audience of many – all those strangers sitting there, shoulders rubbing together in the dark. It is a communal event, and one which expects and demands some form of participation. Unlike film and television, which can be inherently passive, with live performance you can’t get away from the live. You have someone there, now, right in front you, now, this very minute, doing something. That person can sometimes see you. You can sometimes smell them, if it’s a physical performance and you’re lucky to be close enough.
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What makes live performance so devastatingly exciting and present and corporeal is the fact we’re all in it together, breathing in the same air, sharing the same space, collectively becoming older by each minute we remain in each others’ company. There are some theatres and styles which try to create distance – that barricade of air, the fourth wall – and there are many productions, I’m sure, which, although well-meaning, are deadening and dull. But in its absolute essence the fundamental parts of the equation, as outlined above, are the same. A group of humans in a space watching another group of humans pretending to be other humans, telling stories about humans. It is barking, totally, wonderfully, mad. Which is why I love it and keep going back for more, despite that occasional deadening and dull production. It’s also why I think in its most essential aspects, writing for live performance has very different criteria than writing, say, a novel.
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So here are a few other pointers, relevant to the stage but perhaps not other forms:
  • It is happening NOW. Characters must be active and full of action (and please note, we are not talking car chases here: a thought can be an action).
  • When writing for live performance, you’re creating dynamic – an energy that is shared and moving through the cast and hopefully out into the audience.
  • Beautiful reveries, exposition, flashbacks and backstory can block the artery of live performance, stopping the flow and resulting in something dull and deadening.
  • Performance is ephemeral.  This particular show will never happen again. The composite experience of any particular performance will be created as equally by the audiences’ engagement, commitment and focus, as by what the people on stage are doing. Be aware of this communal act. Be aware of this extraordinary event.                          Now write words worthy of it.
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(c)kaiteoreilly 6/9/11

One response to “Revision notes – writing is all about rewriting (1) Some differences between theatre and prose

  1. Judy and Russ Mullins

    Where is there an example of Hemingway’s revision of A Farewell to Arms?

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