Rewriting a Scene
BY BREAKING THROUGH PSYCHOLOGICAL RESISTANCE AND ENGAGING TECHNIQUE
In a writer’s first drafts, the writer is often trying to discover what the piece is about and where it’s going. At a certain point, she goes back over the individual sections and looks for ways she can improve them. In my classes, I often make an assignment where students work on rewriting an individual scene, infusing it with more density of imagery, commentary, and emotion. This scene can be from either fiction or nonfiction or even from poetry.
Sometimes the scene is difficult to write because it involves subject matter that resists the student. This may stem from the nature of the events, such as violence or sexual content. Or the fictional scene may be related to a painful event that occurred in the author’s life. Whether in fiction or memoir, writing that connects to a personal trauma or a series of traumas the author has experienced will almost always evoke various forms of psychological resistance. For one thing, it’s easier to keep an experience at an emotional distance if one talks or writes about it generally or summarily. The more detailed the writer’s description of the experience becomes, the more she may connect with the difficult emotions and memories tied to that experience.
At the same time, the fact that this experience has come up in the writing is a clue from the unconscious: The writer may be ready at this point in her life to reenter and recall that experience. As the psychologist Arabella Kurtz notes in The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, cowritten with the novelist J. M. Coetzee, repression can act as a protective device, especially in childhood. When one is a child, one has little or no control or power over trauma and other forms of abuse; thus, repression can help the child to move on or even to stay sane. But when one reaches a certain age, these repressed memories may resurface, as they sometimes do in writing; that resurfacing generally signals that there is more to be uncovered and understood, that there is a new narrative to be constructed, one that includes the repressed or hazy memories.
As I often tell my students, if you want to dig a hole ten feet deep, you can’t start digging at ten feet deep. You must dig the first inch, then the second. So with material that presents acute psychological resistance, you should give yourself permission to write superficially or badly at first. Sometimes, to simply get at the material, you need to write freely about anything you can think of concerning the topic, that is, without worrying about eloquence or structure or even purpose.
Overall, in this rewriting of a scene, I ask students to concentrate solely on one aspect or way of writing the scene at a time. In general, when you are working on only a single aspect of a piece, without thinking about any other aspect of the piece, the task seems and is easier. You’re better able to see ways you can improve it and come up with new details, imagery, content, or ways of phrasing things.
For this assignment, take one scene from your work, probably some scene of significant change or action. Now do the following at separate times:
First, just freely write about the scene, putting down whatever details or thoughts or feelings that come to mind. Part of the purpose of this writing is to unsettle the unconscious and bring up difficult elements (if fiction) or repressed memories (if autobiographical). Don’t worry about sentence structure or word choice or coherence. Then allow some time to pass.
Second, freely write again about the scene, again putting down whatever details or thoughts or feelings that come up. Again, don’t worry about sentence structure or word choice or coherence. Allow some more time to pass.
Third, write about the scene by breaking it into parts or types of writing; write each part or type of writing separately.
To begin with, write about imagery surrounding the people involved in your scene; this imagery should range as widely as possible. Perhaps you may want to think of how the scene would be shot in a film—different angles and focus, various scenes and places around the main scene, from a wide-angle helicopter shot to close-ups of minutiae. Also think of ways you might evoke the history of the landscape or the locale or even what might happen to this place in the coming years (e.g., range backward and forward in time).
Next write a description of each of the characters; this should range from various aspects of their physical appearance to their clothes and their personal possessions.
Next write about the personal histories of the characters, from significant events and relationships to their jobs and station in life.
Next write about the aspirations and desires of the characters.
Next write an interior monologue for the participants in the scene (i.e., the thoughts and emotions they are having as the scene progresses).
Next write the scene as a play or completely as dialogue or as a screenplay. Write the instructions you might give to an actor playing the part of one of the characters or the choices an actor might make playing one of the characters (these would include not just significant actions but the little gestures or facial expressions or shifts in tone of voice that particularize a talented actor’s performance of a role).
Optional: Write a dream that each of the characters had last night. Write the scene from different emotional states (i.e., a version where they are sad, angry, silly, uncomfortable, and so on)
Think of other ways of writing a part of the scene.
Finally, after you do all this, begin combining and integrating what you have written into a new version of the scene.
Inevitably, after students do this exercise, the revised scene is much more detailed, imagined, and emotionally present than the original. I then tell the student that the revised scene must now become a benchmark, a level of quality she knows she can reach and so must demand in other sections of the piece.