Coming events and courses, Autumn 2011
Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "I'm not a writer any more, I'm a failure."

Getting Fresh

Every now and again an aspiring writer says in my hearing that they're afraid to revise a piece too much, in case they "lose the freshness". And there are understanding nods round the writers' circle or the class, while I try not to say that if the piece as it stands is freshness, then give me over-ripeness any day. Instead I gently explain that there is yet more which could be done to the piece (any piece), such as X and Y, and if Y then Z.... and indeed all those and more must be done if the writer's ever going to learn enough to get their work anywhere near publication.

But a few times I've heard of an agent or editor saying the same sort of thing of one of their authors, which has surprised me much more. Why would they suggest stopping work if there's any possibility that the novel could be better? But presumably they have seen books which have been spoilt by over-working, which have "lost the freshness" as they see it. So I've been thinking about what's going on.

They say that the actresses who can play Juliet well are either fourteen, or over thirty, and I think that's relevant. The fourteen year old draws direct on her own self: she's close to what she's trying to embody, and the spontaneity comes from how relatively little she has to change and imagine to embody Juliet-in-action. What she may not have is the technique to cope with the bad days, the understudy or the things which go wrong. And the stage is not a natural situation and she may not be able to get out of her own light, so that real, spontaneous life can emerge in the unnatural situation, and then get across the footlights. The thirty-five year old has technique not just in the narrow sense of a trained voice and stage-sense, but also in ways of re-finding, every day in rehearsal and performance, that fourteen-year-old self and allowing her to emerge. Plus, since you may only understand the wider significance of a moment in your life afterwards, there's a depth of understanding of the part and the play which can only come in looking back on fourteen-hood. This actress has technique which, used well, can make the teenaged character and action come over better and more vividly than the "real thing". This is mimesis we're talking about, not reality-show, after all, and it needs the voice that can fill a theatre with a whisper, the diction which means every word is clear, and the latent range and power at the beginning which makes Juliet's growth to adulthood by the end believable.

Yes, it's true that when you're learning to write, it's possible to over-correct in the sense that you're tidying things up according to "rules", not according to your sense of what works and what doesn't. True, that sense needs educating by reading, writing and critiquing others, but it always needs to be your sense. Inexperienced writers easily lose sight of what they were originally trying to do with a scene, or lose touch with the voice in trying to correct the grammar or bolt on a dialect or apply or remove contractions. Someone says they find a character boring, but you don't: suddenly you don't know how to read this character and your efforts to make them un-boring jar because you've lost your compass. And the sort of self-consciousness which comes from having understood some techniques and ideas about writing, but not having integrated them into your writing self, can make things come out very stilted.

Any or all of these can happen to an experienced writer too, of course, they just happen just a bit less often, and are a bit more easily fixed. But plenty of good and/or successful writers operate at a very intuitive level: in that sense it's fourteen-year-old because they have a powerful sense and feeling about what works and what doesn't, without wanting to explore why in too much detail. (Which is why you shouldn't assume that a successful writer will be a good teacher or coach, unless they've got form. They may be, but they may not). I assume that's what agents mean about "losing the freshness". Faced with a professional setback or a change of editor, say, experienced writers can have an attack of self-consciousness or lose their confidence as well; they try to fix something which doesn't work or has become unsaleable, or try to get it to conform to some external demand without making sense of it in their own writerly terms, and the result is awkward or clunky or dead.

But actors have to learn how to keep things fresh every night: if they were afraid to rehearse more in case they lost the spontaneity, they'd never rehearse enough to get the damn thing reliably right, or to get physically and vocally fit enough to cope with eight shows a week. And I would argue that keeping the freshness in your work isn't a matter of avoiding the fine-tooth-comb approach to revising, any more than it is for actors to avoid rehearsing.

It's the opposite: you have stop being afraid to be an adult, in other words, and become the thirty-year-old actress playing Juliet: you have to learn to make writing more fresh, not less, by working it. Yes, there may be an awkward phase - an ugly duckling phase - as you grow out of simple spontaneity and into experience. You need to work out your process so you hang on to your original vision: I explored some ways of not messing things up with fiddling here. That vision can then go on controlling your revising as it shaped your first draft. You need to find your best ways to make the piece come up fresh to you, whether it's drawer-time, changing the fonts on screen, reading it aloud or whatever. Then you'll see where it could still be better - more vivid, more compelling, more beautiful, more ugly. And as a bonus, you'll also see where you've spoilt something in the last round of revision, so you can un-spoil it.