“Rewriting”

This first appeared in HuffingtonPost.

When I was 23 and about to go to law school, I thought I’d spend the summer writing a novel. (A bit more than a half-century later, I laugh.) To keep the days free for writing, I decided against getting a day job. Instead I sold my body to science — that is, to the various experiments in greater Boston offering pay to guinea pigs. Most of them were in the late afternoon or evening. The one that made the most lasting impression was a study of hypnosis at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. I was hypnotized six or seven times over a two-week period. I soon realized that hypnosis is co-operative. You don’t just submit; you’re a partner.

A bit later I saw that the trances varied in depth. At an early and shallow level I was conscious enough to rephrase the hypnotist’s suggestion that my extended arm was “as stiff as a broom handle.” I thought of a stronger simile — “arm like a rebar in a block of cement.” The hypnotist hung a bucket of water onto my wrist. I consciously thought it was odd that I didn’t have to make any effort to hold up the weight.

Another trance, deeper. The instructions, of which I was unaware, were: “You’re in third grade. Write your name. Write the names of the students around you.”… “You’re in fourth grade…” When I came to I was amazed at what I saw. In third grade, I still printed. It was eerie how childlike my writing was. Even eerier was my fourth grade writing. I’d seen John Hancock’s signature on a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence. I’d taken to imitating his bold J, the one that looks like a lateen-rigged sail. I’d forgotten that. I also had no memory of picking up a pen during the trance. When I was awoken, I felt as thought I’d had a good nap.

Each session got deeper and deeper. For the last one, because I’d been co-operative, I was given a “free dream period — something pleasant.” I was a dolphin. I felt the air the whole length of my dolphin skin when I leapt, the water when I dove.

It occurred to me much later that rewriting has levels more or less parallel to hypnotic levels. The shallowest and most conscious is, in a now outdated phrase, “Run it through the typewriter one more time.” Level two is something like what Flaubert did in his gueuloir, the practice in which he read his work out loud to himself, making sure each word was right. At a somewhat deeper level: rehearsing before giving a public reading. I have an occasionally recurring stutter, but not when in character on stage in a play. Odd. James Earl Jones has the same pattern; he stutters in everyday life but not when acting. Preparation requires an actor’s concentration to make the words belong to another person, which is its own sort of trance.

Another level of rewriting: I was writing a long story. Halfway through I caught a following wind. I didn’t know why. Two thirds of the way through I did know why. I was rewriting a story I’d tried to write and mangled. Now it was re-emerging with altered characters and different actions, all the better for having aged in the cellar.

Another level: This one came from a conscious decision at first, but went deeper into a semi-conscious realm. You — meaning me but also you, fellow writer — bravely put the 300 pages of a third draft into a drawer and start all over again. But you know the characters. You are happy to see them and hear them again. Perhaps you have some sense of the place where the tale will end. Things go well. Things go very well. Then it gets hard again. So hard you’re stuck.

You take a long hike. Halfway up a hill you stop. Was it something you were humming? Was it something you saw? Some pattern of light and shadow? Something released a buried notion.

In your wallet there’s a blank check and a grocery coupon with white space on the backside. At the bottom of your knapsack there’s a pencil. You scribble. You walk home in a careful daze. It turns out that you don’t even have to look at what you’ve scribbled. However it came to you, whatever it is is hanging around. Not a time to try to explain it. Be of good cheer and go with it.

At some point you may have heard or read other writers’ descriptions of such mysterious but helpful moments. Not explanations and not instructions. Proust, Nabokov, Zamyatin and Kipling — to pick a few at random. Proust’s petit madeleine, Nabokov’s rain drop sliding down a leaf, Zamyatin’s blue light in the sleeping compartment of a railway car, Kipling’s “daemon”…

Whether at the beginning, the middle or the end, whether during the first draft or the last, discipline and routine play a part, but so do the trances.

Writing is rewriting; rewriting is writing — from the first crossed-out word in the first sentence to the last word inserted above a caret, that most helpful handwritten stroke: ^

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