With the support of a three year Michener fellowship, I have had the luxury of devoting my waking hours to writing and rewriting a body of plays, screenplays and short stories. A year into the fellowship, I realized my work wasn't improving with revision. It was departing from my original vision, but not getting better. I didn't know who to listen to, or how to listen to myself. Since coming to that realization, I have spent much of the final two years of my fellowship creating a toolbox of revision strategies that have made me a more conscious, constructive rewriter. I share some with you below.
- Write a love letter to the draft of your dreams, the ideal incarnation of your piece. What does it do that makes you weak in the knees? What habits are you proud it has kicked? Put it in an envelope, address it to yourself, and read every day before getting to work.
- Change your frame. I am a huge advocate of writing on giant paper, of spending as much time off the computer as possible. Sometimes I cover a wall with butcher paper and list all the image systems, objects, themes, and character arcs I am working with. Seeing everything at once allows me to see what I can essentialize, and how to modify character journeys to make them more resonant.
- Take your time. I was blown away when the playwright Naomi Wallace told me she doesn't show anyone her work until she has spent two years alone with it, and that she reads forty years forward and backwards of the time period she is setting her work in.
- The great playwriting teacher Daniel Alexander Jones once told me that before he begins a rewrite, he sits on his hands and reads the draft three times, once out loud, not touching a pen or pencil until the third go around. Only then, after printing out another copy that he never makes a mark on, will he begin to rewrite, always with attention to the whole.
- Identify what is driving the work. Is it plot? Image? Character? Dramatic irony? Disaster may ensue if you put the wrong guy in the driver's seat.
- Make it delicious. Write with felt tipped pens on silky paper. Put on the flouncy dress you've been saving for a special occasion. The stockings and the crinoline too. Look first-date amazing. Then sit at your desk, and get to work.
- Make the familiar strange. Write standing up. Write with your non-dominant hand. Write with a bag over your head. This will have the added effect of keeping you from self-editing too soon.
- Make your writing life a sustainable component of a broader living practice. Know what activities complement your writing work, and do them regularly. In my life this has manifested as a commitment to spending recreational time cooking, dancing, vegetable farming, receiving acupuncture treatments, and befriending people more engaged in the physical world then me.
- When you are despairing, walk away from your work. Take out a blank sheet of paper, and write down three things that have already happened that day which you are grateful for. Remember how luminous you are; reflect on all the people who believe in you. Then get back to work.