The art of revising

Tonight, while discussing the new film Becoming Jane with my wife, Jennifer, I was struck by a thought about writers in film in general. The past several years, I’ve been keeping an informal, mental list of films featuring writers (or, at least, the films I’ve enjoyed)–films like Finding Forrester or Wonderboys or Stranger Than Fiction–even, in a pinch, Under the Tuscan Sun. Becoming Jane is the newest film on my list, and it does a fair job of showing Jane Austen writing: The iconic scene is her sprawled across a small table, pages scattered everywhere; she’s dressed in her nightgown and leans on one hand, gazing softly at her elegant, romantic penmanship, a perfectly picturesque country scene shining through the wide picture window before her and illuminating her and her work in a milky cool light. But it’s not my favorite scene: for that, I much prefer her jumping from her chair to pace the room, biting her pen or wringing her gown in a frenzy of wordsmithing, then collapsing onto the piano bench to pound out a few notes and play away her creative fury until–eureka!–the ideal words spring to her mind and she rushes back to swirl them onto the page, dark ink soaking into the thick cotton paper in a weightless but serious script, and she smiles almost postcoitally. (My second favorite–and the most accurate in terms of writing craft, I think–is a brief scene in which Austen, just returned from a stroll and about to greet guests, suddenly and rudely slips to a nearby bench to scribble a phrase in her little notebook.)

Still, tonight I found the scenes frustrating, and what occurred to me was that films almost never portray the most important act of writing: revision. All we ever get are the long moments of deep concentration, writers waiting like saints for a vision from some Literature-God. If we don’t get that, we get frenzied dashes of quirky, frantic behavior, the chain smokers and binge drinkers, the writers who have to wear their socks inside-out or bang on pianos or count the cracks in a sidewalk just to get their ideas flowing.

These are, of course, acts of writing, at least for some. I certainly have done my share of staring wistfully out windows, the hard glow of a blank computer screen winning our staring contest; and I certainly have my quirks, writing best at 2 a.m. and spending hours compiling “soundtracks” for my stories and novels. But even with these brief scenes of pain–the furrowed brows and the self-destructive habits–the movies have made writing look easy. All we have to do, it seems, is gaze long enough, think hard enough, or be weird enough, and the writing will take care of itself. When a colleague (who doesn’t write) learned I was writing a novel this summer, she brushed aside my effort by saying, “Oh, well, that shouldn’t be too hard–all you have to do is write a few words each day and you’ll be done in no time.” If only it were that easy! I could–and sometimes did–simply “write a few words each day,” but what I want are the right words, and finding them takes a lot more effort than staring into space or drinking seventeen cups of coffee.

I have the front of an old birthday card stuck to my office door on campus; it shows Winne-the-Pooh tapping a pencil to his chin, a sheaf of papers tucked under one arm, and below him the card reads, “The hardest part about writing, thought Pooh, is finding the right words.” A long time before Pooh, Mark Twain commented that “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–`tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” Too true. But I tend to view writing a bit like sculpting, except harder: In sculpting, you have a choice between adding on wet clay to build up a piece or chiseling away raw stone to reveal a piece. In writing you have to do both, adding on loads of wet, raw words, and then chiseling away at the excess to reveal the beauty within. That’s what it takes to find the right words. That’s what good writing is about. That’s called revision, and we almost never get to see it on film.

Jennifer (who, if she weren’t so much like her mother, could be the love child of Nancy Pearl and Robert Osborne) pointed out tonight that writing in general is a pretty lonely act, with the writer often sitting motionless in a chair, only the fingers pecking at a keyboard or a typewriter, and except for a few iconic seconds to get across the idea of writing–Angela Lansbury punching in the title words for Murder, She Wrote, for instance–we really don’t want to see the act of writing, because it’s pathetically uncinematic. There’s not any action to put on film, Jennifer said; everything is internal, the old wheels-turning-in-the-head gag. With revision, it’s usually just more of the same, with the occasional addition of a scratch-out or an erasure, a scribbled note in a margin, maybe a highlighter or a sticky-note once in a while. Not a very pretty picture. Certainly not cinematic.

Still, I yearn to see the meat (or, in my case, the soy beans) of writing portrayed realistically and seriously, just once, just to see what it’s like. I want more of the writing process on film, the way we get to see it for songwriting in Music and Lyrics or for screenwriting in Adaptation. Enough, really, with the old Hemingway-and-Faulkner routine: No more of the brooding craftsman who “would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame,” who “would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence.” (All you have to do, Hemingway? I wish it were that simple!) And no more of the flippant, alcoholic madman, toying drunkenly with language just for the sake of it and letting the unpolished rough draft relax in the glory of its originality instead of stand on the merits of its expert prose. (Faulkner once said in an interview that “all the trash must be eliminated in the short story, whereas one can get away with some of it in a novel.” It’s fine that you let yourself get away with “trash,” Faulkner, but did you have to dump all the garbage in my bookshelf? Couldn’t you have tried in all your novels to be as tidy as you were in As I Lay Dying?”)

Truman Capote said, “I believe more in the scissors than in the pencil.” There, ladies and gentlemen, was a true reviser. There have been two recent, highly acclaimed films made about Capote, Capote and Infamous, and I somehow have yet to see either of them. Now I’m thinking I must, and soon, because perhaps there, at last, I’ll get to see revising on film.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

2 thoughts on “The art of revising

  1. I hadn’t considered this lack of revision in film, but you are perfectly correct. We see writers rushing around in a mad frenzy, and we see them staring and thinking, but we rarely see the revision process. Your colleague’s comment about writing a novel being easy minimizes the work we do, dismissing it as though any poor sap, perhaps even a monkey, could produce a credible novel with just a few words a day. But no one really knows the heart of any job until they’ve attempted it themselves. I love the show “Dirty Jobs” because of the insight it gives to the working class and the jobs. We have nothing like that for writing, and I wonder how the nuts of bolts of our sometimes dirty job could be presented cinematically without the quirky moments yet still conveying the genuine excitement and doldrums.~CLE

  2. You know, I knew the Dirty Jobs host only as “That Guy Who Does the Truck Ads” before I even knew about the show, but I’ve been watching a lot of the Discovery Channel the past few months (Cash Cab, Mythbusters, Survivorman, How It’s Made), and I really enjoy Dirty Jobs and the host, for all the reasons you mention.I think Jennifer’s right, though: Though we may sweat blood (or, in my case, skin-filtered coffee), most of what we do as writers in internal. Our “dirt” is ink and graphite, and that’s not nearly as much fun to film as, say, fecal mud or suspension-bridge paint or steaming cheese curds.Alas.Still, that’s one of the reasons I liked Emma Thompson’s character in Stranger Than Fiction, because–brilliant actress that she is–she managed to manifest some of that internal strife on the outside where we could cringe from looking at it.

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