“In painting, as in composing or any art form, what you take out is as important as what you leave in.” Neil Simon
From Neil Simon’s Rewrites: A Memoir:
“By the end of the first week I had written eighteen pages, Proud of myself, I took Sunday off and on Monday morning reread what I had written. Eighteen pages suddenly got distilled into three pages. Over the years I have found that putting a play, or even one act, into a drawer and not looking at it for at least a few weeks makes wondrous things happen. Its faults suddenly become very clear. When I take it out and reread it, it has disconnected form my daily thoughts, that stream of consciousness that pours out so confidently on a minute-to-minute basis, and goes quickly from the subjective to the objective.
“At that point the words no longer seems to come from me but rather it’s as though some unknown person has sent it to me through the mail, asking my opinion of it. As I read it, what’s good remains good, but what’s bad jumps off the page and smacks me right across my ego. My thick black indelible pen puts a line through every inferior word and sentence, blocking it out forever for any theater historian who might find it one day and say, ‘My God! How could he write such crap?’ I can. We all can….Sid Caesar once gave me the best advice about cutting: ‘If they don’t hear it, they never know you wrote it.”
“In the second week I wrote another twenty pages and too Sunday off at the beach, and what I read on Monday I reduced from twenty to four pages. In two weeks I had a total of only seven pages. I began to think, “God created the universe in six days and on the seventh day He rested. And on Monday morning He had a lot of rewriting to do.”
Wow! Boiling down your work from eighteen pages to three and then from twenty pages to four. Now that’s ruthless rewriting!
I love it when Neil says that “wondrous things” happen when you put your work away for a while. Haven’t you found this to be true? I know I have. Suddenly, you can cast a cold, objective eye over it, free from the excitement of first creating it.
When I began revising my play Dust of Egypt to submit to a festival, I hadn’t read it in a long time. Rereading what I’d written, I instantly saw some major flaws—things that needed to be fixed and strengthened. It was clear that the ending didn’t work and needed to be revised. But because time had passed, I felt free to re-envision it.
Sometimes, I know, it’s hard to pass that black line through your words the way Neil Simon did so ruthlessly with his own. But as he points out so well, “what you take out is often as important as what you leave in.”
So let’s take time off and gain some distance from our projects as Neil suggests. And let’s be bold! Let’s cut what doesn’t work until we get to the heart of what does. Write on!
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