Sunday, August 26, 2012

Revisions are Revitalizing

I'm always processing several life lessons at once, but one of this year's big lessons has been about understanding the fears that hold me back, and how my mind inflates these fears far beyond their actual consequence. In other words, It's Never As Bad As You Think. This goes for a lot of things, whether it's cleaning the bathroom, or phoning a cute guy, or sitting down in front of the blank page to write. (Why do you think I am writing this blog post? Because I finally managed to stifle the fear that my next post would have to be one of real consequence and earth-shattering importance in order to atone for my absence from the blogosphere.) I always, always inflate my minor trepidations into major obstacles -- and then, when I finally force myself to do what I need to do, I always, always find joy in the journey. For, if you never do anything, how can your life have any purpose or narrative zest? And I do love a good story.

And so it is with revising Pleiades. After several months of feeling like I should sit down and do a new draft, I now have an urgent reason to do so: it's going to be published! Volume 2 of Olympians Festival plays will be coming out this autumn (buy volume 1 here), with Pleiades as one of the ten scripts therein. Labor Day is my deadline for submitting a revised script to the publisher -- so I have one more week to get it into a form that will be printed on actual paper and sold in actual bookshops. (Eek!)

And for a long time, I dawdled. The reading of Pleiades last fall was generally successful and I knew the revision wouldn't involve major structural overhauls, yet there were also moments that didn't land correctly, moments that could use more pop. I was stymied, however, when it came to figuring out how to solve those problems. I'd think for a while, not see a way to resolve it, despair of ever getting the script into a form I could be proud of -- all without actually opening up the document on my laptop and playing around with it. I fell into a fatalistic mood, convinced that the problem was intractable, and felt slightly panicked whenever I thought about my deadline for delivering the script.

But when I finally forced myself to look at the actual script, I found my instinct guiding me to where I needed to edit. Change a few words here, get rid of that overwritten passage... and hey, wait a minute, maybe if I approached the scene from this angle... if a character reacted to that revelation with fury rather than fear... if I wasn't so concerned with keeping the play under a certain number of pages, if I gave my climactic scene a bit more space to breathe... could that solve the problem that had given me such grief?

It was not a flash of insight, more a steadily growing certainty that I knew what to do to fix the scene. I had read about this kind of thing happening to writers, but I guess I'd never quite believed I'd experience it for myself. My old enemies, again: fear and mistrust. I doubted myself, I feared the worst, I forgot how good it feels to come up with a new idea, test its strength, and finally say, yes, yes, I think this will work.

Only a couple of days before that, I'd read a quote from Hemingway about how to write: "Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start." Bah, humbug, I thought. Yet perhaps that quote provides an explanation for what happened to me: my subconscious, not my conscious mind, discovered what I needed to do to fix the scene.

The famous advice "Kill your darlings" has also been attributed to Hemingway. And the great thing about returning to a script after several months away is that killing your darlings becomes less painful to do. You find yourself attacking the script with Occam's razor. Anything needlessly complicated or weakly motivated will stand out in a way it didn't before. Things that seemed so important when you initially wrote them now cause you to ask yourself, "Why was I so convinced that this was the only right choice for this moment?"

For instance, in Pleiades, I had a very difficult time getting one of the characters onstage for the climactic confrontation. This scene needs to happen, in order to wrap up the plot and provide a catharsis, and yet one of the characters (Bruce) has good reasons to avoid the other character (Moira) entirely. When I initially drafted the script, it took me a whole afternoon to figure out how to get Bruce onstage -- finally I decided that he would have a preexisting appointment with Moira's father, so he'd show up at the house and run into Moira. But this raised other problems: Moira's father is an unseen character in the script, mentioned several times but never appearing. If I used him to motivate the climactic scene, wouldn't the audience then expect to see him come onstage and play a part in the climax? Wouldn't the audience start to wonder where he was, and then say "Oh, right, he doesn't appear in this play because then they'd need to hire another actor, and this play has nine characters already," and then wouldn't that shatter the illusion that I was constructing?

I realized that the less I mentioned Moira's father, the less these questions and doubts would grow in the mind of the audience. Very well -- but then that brought me back to my old problem of how to get Bruce onstage. And then, suddenly, the solution seemed blindingly obvious. As I said, it's not a two-character play, it's a nine-character play. So instead of having an appointment with the unseen character of Moira's father, why couldn't Bruce have an appointment with one of the characters who does appear onstage -- Moira's sister Elena, say? And then that would allow for a nice little character beat between Bruce and Elena, too...

Plays are about action, not thought. And so, too, is life. You can't get any sense of how to revise your play from merely thinking about revising it. You have to open up that document and hack away.


Dr.J said...

Hi, Marissa! greetings and some news from Spain.
The Ceres Award (after the roman goddess, of course) is a yearly distinction to the best last year theatrical performance and has gone to Agosto (August) the Tracy Letts play. It was on stage from Dec 11 to Feb 12 in Madrid by the National Drama Company (a public theatrer of course). It had been premiered in Barcelona by the so called National Theater (another public company, of course) in catalonian.
The funny side is that the award is given in the National Classics Theater festival in Mérida (another public event, of course) that performs greek and roman plays on the original first century AD location of Mérida (Emerita Augusta).

Marissa Skudlarek said...

felicitaciones a Tracy Letts y el Teatro Nacional!