by TM Wright
I’ll admit it, I rewrite almost continuously (which would, of course, be “continually”). I rewrite rewrites, and then rewrite the rewritten rewrites. And, when the thing (meaning “the story”) has lain around unread for a month or two, I reread it (with, of course, nearly perfect objectivity, by then), then rewrite it again! Am I compulsive? Yes. What drives that compulsion? The need to get it right! And who’s to say when it’s “right”? I’m to say when it’s right. Not the readers (who haven’t yet read the particular product of my compulsion), not the agents (ditto), and not the publishers and editors (ditto again): I’m to say when it’s right. In fact, I’ve already rewritten the previous 111 words at least six times. I’m a rewrite junkie!
That said, you should accept as gospel that you can easily rewrite a thing until it lies gasping, nearly dead, drained (by all those damned rewrites) of its vibrancy, its will to live, its punch! “But,” you say, “does that mean a story only has punch if it’s imperfect?” Flapdoodle, of course, because, though we all know what “imperfect” is, we can have no idea at all what “perfect” is (and it is not, I’ve been told, ending a sentence in a preposition). But that’s odd, too, isn’t it? Because if we can say, with certainty, “that’s imperfect” (that being the sentence, metaphor, phrase, piece of dialogue or whatever we have just committed to paper [meaning, for most of us, “the computer”]) then, also with certainty, we know what “perfect” is: but we don’t, and we can’t. We can’t, because we’re so vastly imperfect–we see only a narrow spectrum of light, hear only a narrow spectrum of sounds, smell only a very narrow spectrum of odors, et cetera, et cetera. We’re as imperfect, imprecise and full of error as a right-hand turn on a left-hand curve. “So how, tell me how,” you say, “can I, this vastly imperfect being, make my piece of writing perfect?” And the answer is simple: you can’t, and you never will. Not, that is, unless you accept such whiny phrases as “as perfect as possible, ” or “as perfect as it can be” as alternatives to “perfect,” which they are, of course, “perfect” being unattainable, at least to our limited and pitiable five senses and intellect.
Okay, then, you say to yourself, why should I rewrite compulsively? I’m not saying you should rewrite compulsively: I’m saying I do. Maybe, for you, rewriting is simply not important. Maybe you feel, like many writers, that rewriting is unnecessary, that it’s anathema to the creative process (“You don’t re-experience an orgasm, do you?” you’ll say. “You simply get it right the first time.”). And, hey, if that works in your creative world, I raise my glass to you: perfection (or one of its alternatives, noted above) flows from your precious gray matter to your fingers to the keys to the computer screen (or typing paper, given your technological predilections), like fine wine flowing through a glass tube and into a paper cup. ]
We rewrite, many of us, to make perfect what we can never make perfect–our literary children. We should rewrite simply to make those children better. We should rewrite to get rid of crap like passive voice, meaningless repetition (because, of course, not all repetition is meaningless, only meaningless repetition is meaningless, only repetition without use or necessity is meaningless), errant commas and dashes and rambling parenthetical comments, continuity that has no hope of scanning well, endings that do not please or (again) punch (if we want them to punch: “Shouldn’t all endings punch?” you ask, and I answer, No. Sometimes the rest of the story, the part that leads to the end of the story, should punch harder than its ending. But that’s up to you and your particular literary child or paper cup full of fine wine), meandering, tedious beginnings, characters who do not convince us they’re real (who convince us only that they’re pretending to be real), or simply annoy (without purpose), and whose dialogue sounds more like coins dropping on tin than the whispers, music, agony and free verse that most literary characters can, and should produce.
Getting a piece of writing perfect through continual (or even continuous) rewrites is as impossible as defining perfection itself. But we all do it (or we should do it, or we should aspire to do it, or, oh well, eschew it for that perfect orgasm the first time, all the time, every time) because our literary children are really us in costumes made of metaphors, analogies, beginnings, endings and kick-ass cover art, and, since it’s clear to everyone, including us, that we’re as imperfect as the universe can possibly allow any living creature to be, we need to introduce our literary children to the world at large in a light as bright, pleasing and awesome as we possibly can–their own light, of course. We need those literary children to come so close to perfection, in the eyes of our readers (all of whom are exactly as imperfect as we and our children are), that we will be seen, in that light, as all-but immortal.
In other words, we (read as I, and possibly you¸ too) continually rewrite because we are not immortal, because we’re almost nightmarishly imperfect, and so we’re very, very afraid. What are we so afraid of? We’re afraid of being rejected, laughed at, ridiculed, sent packing, and spending the rest of our lives (the rest of our lives) in soulless and painful anonymity (no matter how much our loved ones revere us as geniuses) and then, when life is ready to leave us, hoping that we’ll end up like Van Gogh, anyway–immortal in the afterward.
Should you be a rewrite junkie, as I am? I don’t know. Maybe your writing is always perfect (or as perfect as it can be) the first time, every time, which means you’re perfect. If so, send me the secret of perfection, okay? In the meantime, I’ll take yet another look at this damned thing–a final look (Sure. )–and hope for the best.