The hardest thing I did all weekend, the hardest thing I’ll do all week

young man napping on foam bedding on ground

On Saturday night, I went to bed at 8:30pm.1

I didn’t go to sleep at 8:30; it took me a full hour and a half of fighting myself to do that, with an assist from the back third of Breaker Morant and the front quarter of John Adams. Still, me, in bed by 8:30 on any night is tremendous. That I had just set the goal for myself that very day to be in bed by 8pm and only missed it by a half-hour was icing on the cake.

I am not quite done unpacking all of the reasons why it’s so hard for me to call it a day, even on a weekend, but I have a short list:

  1. I was an only child for five and a half years. I grew up around grown-ups, and was treated like one, albeit a short, ignorant one. That treatment very reasonably ended at my being able to partake in certain grown-up activities, such as operating a motor vehicle and consuming adult beverages and staying up past 8pm and fire. So now, I’LL SHOW THEM. (I know, I know. A genius of logic, I am not. Still, I love driving, liquor and espresso, and my place is lousy with candles and incense, so at least I’m consistently illogical.)
  2. I am an overachiever. With a crippling case of eyes-bigger-than-stomach syndrome, time-wise. I always, always, always think I can get more done in a day than I can, and much less than is reasonable. So I feel like I should have gotten more done, always, and I feel like the answer to actually doing it is just pushing harder and harder, rather than revising my notions of what is right and proper.
  3. I am human. I want “me” time, or rather, “me, unplugged” time. Me-not-worky time. Me-veg-out time. And since I am relentless and/or a nimrod, time-management-wise, right up until I hit my limit, I insist on treating myself to whoop-dee-do time at night, by which time I’m so exhausted all my body wants to do is rest up for the next day of battle with my will. “Whoop-dee-do” equals an adult beverage and/or TV, since I am still dealing with my inner five-and-a-half-year-old’s unmet needs.

So. Even though I missed the mark by a half-hour and spent my wind-down time consuming video entertainment, I’m calling it progress. Hard-won. Hard, period.

At the same time I’m tackling this staying-up-late/overexerting-myself nonsense, I’m also dealing with a surprise problem. It’s so ridiculous, I’m embarrassed to say it, or, rather, I’ve been too embarrassed to say it in the two weeks since I discovered it. Now, I’m saying it:

I do not know how to rewrite.

Does that look like nothing to you? Look again:

I am a writer. I have made my living writing. I have had things I’ve written performed on professional stages. I have written a monthly column for actors, one in which I not infrequently stress the necessity of working incessantly at one’s craft, for over four years. I have written posts on this very blog for over six years. Just this summer, I helped teach a teleclass about writing.2 And I do not know how to rewrite.

I will go into the long and boring and painful story of my revelation another day.3 For now, what is relevant and necessary to share is this: there’s always something to do next. ALWAYS. I watched some of a documentary about Ram Dass. In it, he talks about his stroke, and how his reaction as he was having it was the opposite of spiritual. As someone on the spiritual path, he gave himself an “F”. So he’s working with his teacher, the stroke, to learn more stuff.


Anyway, once you’re on the other side of whatever morass you need to see your way through, you might see how that’s a good thing. Bumping up against trouble and working your way through it, on the other hand, requires vast stores of energy and patience. I’m running short on the former these days, and I’ve never had much of the latter.

Changing these things, my relationship to time, my ability to rewrite, may also change how I approach the blog. I’m finally ceding to the reality of finite amounts of time and energy, and I really, really, really want to get some more complex and intricate forms of writing out into the world. Books take vast amounts of time, and fuckloads of rewriting. It’s one thing to dash off a pretty good first draft of a 1,000-word piece; it’s another to do the same for a 60,000-word memoir. There is no dashing that.

As I move forward, then, I suppose I will do what I can do, and what I’ve done thus far: share what I can, when it is useful. It’s just that prior to this alarming discovery, “can” had a lot more to do with my ability to process than my levels of energy or my available hours. It should be an interesting six months, if I remain committed to this new learning.

In the meantime, one thing I am very interested in doing is immersing myself in the techniques and mindset of rewriting, if there are any. An initial couple of searches didn’t turn up much, which intrigues me. If writing is rewriting, shouldn’t there be a lot more writing about rewriting? Or maybe there is, and I’ve blinded myself to it.

I have enlisted actual help in this, by the way. My writing-group buddy (we’re down to just two of us) is, as it turns out, as good at rewriting as I am bad at it. And she’s a mom, so she’s got the patience thing down.

Still. You know. Resources and stories of how you licked the problem would be most welcome at this juncture.


1And please, don’t waste one second feeling sorry for me being home on a Satiddy night. First, I am 49, I’ve had a million of ’em. Second, Saturday night? Feh. It’s second only to New Year’s Eve and most Sundays in line for the title of “Worst Night to Go Out, Ever.”

2Despite my inadequacies, the stuff I did talk about, I actually knew something about. The course is really good, with tons of great information and exercises and practices, so if you’re looking for a self-directed course on writing, I highly recommend you check it out. And yes, I make money if you buy through that link. Or this one! Or this one! I wrestle with it inside, this affiliate-linking thing, and I need to write up a formal policy and make explicit my reasons for affiliate-linking (or not). But for now, know that it’s just that, and Amazon, and Groupon that I link to that way. Period.

3But just to head off certain questions at the pass, the reason I’ve been able to skate for so long is two-fold. First, like some autistic savant or functional illiterate, I used the superpowers and will I did have to get really, really good at writing a first draft. My first drafts are not perfect, but they’re better than plenty of people’s second drafts to pass, and good enough for gov’mint work almost all of the time. Second, whenever I did need to rewrite, I had help, bosses, clients, art directors, fellow Groundlings, whatever. Even then, change was minimal and excruciating. Whatever the opposite of fun is, it was that. And if you don’t believe me (although I don’t know why you wouldn’t, since I’m pretty frank on this here blog), a final kind of Q.E.D. is this set of footnotes: they exist because I’m not even going to try to fancy-first-draft this. I’m too tired to rewrite to get them into the draft, so they’re just going, and staying, here.

Image by slettvet via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. For me, rewriting is based on detaching myself from the work and coming to it from a completely separate perspective. Sometimes it takes a little time for me to come to it fresh – sometimes I literally change hats/ glasses/ costume to try to detach myself and come to it as an editor. It may be easier for me because I’m more comfortable as editor than a writer, though :)

    1. Distance is one of the most commonly made suggestions. Even a distance of 10 minutes (though more is better).

      I love the idea of literally changing outfits. Like you’re SUPEReditor.

  2. Ah, rewriting. The pain, the pain.

    But: first of all, rewriting does not mean “inevitable.” You have indeed gotten pretty freakin’ good at the old first draft. If you have time to put aside your work for three days (during which you do other writing, a critical component of acquiring distance), do that, then go back and eagle-eye it. Do any needed changes poke up their heads? If so, make them. Think Whack-a-Mole.

    If none were needed, you are indeed Master of the First Draft, and can ignore the rest of this comment.

    What the need for changes implies: That, in the luxury of love for your new creation, you couldn’t see it all, all at once. This is not a shortcoming, it is a universal truth. Love is not just blind but blinding.

    What the need for changes does NOT imply: that you are a bad person, that you are a bad writer, that you are stupid, that you cannot write, or that you have the vision of the average mole (however, as this last does apply to my own physical self, I have to leave it off my list unless I capitalize “vision.” Then, it’s still true).

    Did I have to edit this comment? Yep. And not just for typos either.

    1. Interesting observations/thoughts.

      I agree that rewrites aren’t always inevitable. And as Deborah points out (below), ad copywriters get good at invisible rewrites—rewriting on the fly, in the form of tweaking, or “editing on the go,” in her words. I’m glad for this blog and the edit-as-you-go skillz it and advertising taught me. It’s just not a style that works for really complex ideas. I have a number of post ideas (which are really essay ideas) that I doubt I could sit down and write even in the most luxurious first draft.

      That’s the trouble I’m running into with the memoir. Things that seemed clear when I started these individual pieces (5-6K words) don’t by the end. And the overall arc is still fuzzy/messy.

      Anyway, the good news is that I’m able to separate my frustration with lack of facility in this new area from my general sense of self-worth. For now, anyway.

  3. There are many facets to yourself, right? Think of re-writing as the process of one facet talking to the other facet. And let your heart lead you to which facets you pick and how you mix them up. Give them personalities. Have fun with it. But keep it simple, effortless and enjoyable. When that stops, you stop. Walk away from it then come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes ready for the next re-write until you bring it … wee, wee, wee … all the way home.

    1. Funny. Usually it’s so easy to read comments. Today, it’s like they’re all in a foreign language I barely speak.

      I do grasp the walk-away concept. It is rather shocking, the room I’m giving myself to just do as much as I can at a time, and come back to it when I’m refreshed.

      Fortunately, it’s a memoir. They get better with age, anyway. More material to work with.

  4. Hey, Colleen! I’m a regular reader here, finally chiming in. :)

    I’m willing to bet that what’s happening with your writing is not that you don’t know how to rewrite, but that you’re editing/rewriting as you go — possibly more extensively, and certainly less consciously, than you realize. I think this is a pretty common skill with people like us who learned the craft by writing ads/biz copy. Writing short copy, on deadline, will hone your editing skills like crazy!

    (I can’t really account for the “minimal and excruciating” part of the equation from footnote 3, except to say that feedback from others can easily be exhaustingly detailed, or not detailed enough, or may complete fark up the copy, miss the point, alter the scope of the project, etc. Being able to critique the critiques you receive and sort out the various changes — necessary vs. bullshit, desirable vs. avoidable, helpful vs. hellacious, improves the work vs. doesn’t screw everything up — is, in itself, a powerful and necessary skill.)

    Not everyone follows the write-a-complete-draft-then-rewrite-it school of revision — especially those of us who learned our craft writing ads/biz copy. Writing shorter works on tight schedules builds fast, skillful as-you-go editing skills. I naturally alternate from writing to editing mode for even the shortest of things, and can’t do it any other way. I’m good with longer/complex projects because I can break them down into all their various components. You may unconsciously do the same thing with your blog posts, structuring and refining it as you go. And adding footnotes, of course. Useful things, footnotes.

    My monsters mostly come out for the creative writing projects. Particularly fiction. Argh. I find the lack of a deadline plus the unlimited possibilities of the blank page, paralyzingly scary. Poetry, plays, audio theater … anything is easier than the fiction if for no other reason than that the poem is more defined. Short stories are bad enough, but the novel remains completely out-of reach, my personal and impossibly distant scary/sacred place. One day, I will commit to one of my zillion novel ideas (no pun intended) and write a damned book-length story. That day is not today, or tomorrow, or any other day I can see from where I stand now.

    It’s taken me forever to start to figure out how to write/edit in what feels like a normal manner for me while working on anything that isn’t work-for-hire — and I’ve had the greatest success when working on projects that come with a hard deadline/very specific writing parameters that are set by someone else. It’s like having to fence in a bit of the range so I’m not completely overwhelmed by the whole damned landscape. Horizons are nice, if you don’t mind staring straight into the great unknown. Chokes the creative juice right out of me, it does.

    We all learn our skills one piece at a time. If a novel seems overwhelming, it may very well be. If that’s where your heart is, then go for it with the awareness that you’re going to be a writing newbie again. You probably work much more slowly than you used to, create a lot of crap, and feel like a big dummy. That’s okay. That’s what it will take to become more conscious of your existing skills, develop new ones, and figure out how to use all of them to write something as large and limitless as a novel. If, however, writing a novel is the thing you think you’re supposed to want, well, phooey on that! Look around for other projects, collaborations, etc. that will give you a chance to work with new forms. (Obviously, I recommend things that have limits and deadliness.) You’ll learn enormously from every project, and gain skills you never knew you needed. And you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for the skills you already have and use so unconsciously and freely.

    P.S. Wow, thanks for such idea-starter! I’m getting ready to launch a writing blog, and you’ve made me aware of at least three different topics that I should probably plan to explore extensively. Awesomely helpful of you!

    1. I’m willing to bet that what’s happening with your writing is not that you don’t know how to rewrite, but that you’re editing/rewriting as you go — possibly more extensively, and certainly less consciously, than you realize.

      Precisely, and well-put. This new thing I’m trying doesn’t lend itself to that. Or maybe it does and I haven’t really given it the old college try. Hmm.

      You may unconsciously do the same thing with your blog posts, structuring and refining it as you go.

      I do, and it’s conscious. I never *counted* it as rewriting, since it was mostly tweaking—checking for inconsistencies, usage irregularities, typos (most of which I miss anyway) and a little bit for clarity. I was definitely indulging in a little exaggeration for effect.

      I would not equate “blog post” with “long project”, though. I think of “long project” as book length, or at least long-essay/novella length.

      Interesting attitude about novels. I can’t recall even having had an idea for one. When an idea was given to me, I was willing to give it a go, but only for money. I am not sure if it’s fear or disinterest. But yeah, unwieldy, that’s my problem. I like edges.

      You’d think the edges of “essays + introduction” would be enough. Maybe it is. We’ll see.

      And please do feel free to write about rewriting on your brand new blog.

      1. D’oh. Memoir, not novel. Obviously, I got you confused with, well … me. :P

        Edges? Expound, please. (In college, after a particularly upsetting project failure, my fave professor said, “Deborah, if you’re going to live on the edge, you have to accept that, sometimes, you’ll slide right over it.” Awesome statement, but might not match up to your use of the term.)

  5. Errr … anything is easier *than fiction* if for no other reason than that *the project* is more defined.

  6. Oh my, I am SO with you on the “hard to get to bed” problem. I wasn’t an only child, but had enough adult time to associate Johnny Carson with grown up privileges. I empathize completely with your points two and three. I can only hope that waking up in the morning is an easier process for you than it is for me.

    Good luck with the rewriting learning. I’ll look forward to reading the results of that.

  7. I can’t rewrite either. Sometimes I scrap and write it again, but rewriting itself rarely makes sense to me – it’s like an infinite loop.

    And my mind seems to come alive at night, so I also cannot go to bed at a reasonable hour, even to read or journal or something else calming.

    So neither of these things make you a weirdo.

  8. Hey Colleen,

    You expect rewriting to be FAST?? FAST??? Pardon me while I fall over laughing. WRITING should be the fast part. I always tell me clients they should write as fast as they can and edit/rewrite as slowly as they can tolerate.

    Apart from “incubation time,” which is absolutely essential, by the way, you can also use your computer to help you with rewriting. (I will send you something by email explaining this.) In terms of larger structural questions, one thing that might help is….OUTLINING!

    As you may know, I am STRONGLY opposed to outlining before writing. But it’s a tool that’s perfect for AFTER you’ve finished writing. It allows you to expose the structure you’ve used and you can decide if it works just fine, or whether you need to rebuild!

    Another thing that might help is walking. I walk a lot (not just sayin’ that — I wear a pedometer and hit about 6 miles a day) and I always use my walking time to think about what I’m going to write or what I have written. Invaluable.

    You are certainly NOT a weirdo for having problems with rewriting. We ALL have problems with writing — whether it’s the pre, post or actually doing it phase. Writing is hard work. We all suck at certain parts of it.

  9. Your “first” drafts are, besides being cleaner, clearer, brighter than most final polishes, actually a product of your talented brain and skilled experience in certain professions, where revisions happen before the words hit paper. Your ‘first roughs” are 3rd revisions – no need to do a final polish when the client gets the last say, it’s just heartbreaking.

    But in the world of memoirs, yes, you’ve met up with the toughest form to revise. Wow, nothing like starting at the top! Please know: rewriting your own 60k-word memoir for an agent or publisher is far, far different than rewriting anything else – can’t even be compared to writing and revising a one-woman show/memoir (like Carrie Fisher’s WISHFUL DRINKING.)

    I recently line-edited a heartbreaking memoir of a charmed life, telling the story of a gal’s being thrust into what is not your mother’s widowhood. The year between her writing the last chapters (supposed to be the happy ending to 9 months of adversity but were not) and her final walk-through to do the publisher’s few notes included my serious edit, which was still during her “in it” phase. But now, reading her gallies before release, she’s been changed by time and we find her challenge is to keep to the person/voice/POV who wrote the original (very clean, excellent, advanced) first draft.

    Deborah’s take is on target, but this memoir stuff is different than writing characters and plot and revising that. The “story arc” of your memoir may show growth in the central figure (you, I’d hope), but only while writing the first draft. Your rewriting challenge will be to stay with the person who started writing, not rewrite the whole work from the POV of the person who has learned too much from the writing process.

    Frankly, because I know your writing from this blog and other online outlets, I think what you put on the page with your instinctive on-the-fly editing (I call it ‘finger tuning’, as if your fingers/keyboard know how to tune what you’re hearing in your head), should be the draft you just write and don’t look back at until you get with an editor you trust. She (or he) should be in sync with your goals for the book, should help you craft your spine, arc and theme so you can protect what serves it and revise what doesn’t. Ideally, your editor will know your book’s intended audience, your voice, and help you get out of your own way.

    Rewriting IS the work of writing. Most other writing. Memoir is the work of discovering the invisible DNA in a body of truth. It’s different. Please have someone help you stay out of your own way enough to deliver your “why-this-must-be-written-or-I’ll-die” draft to your agent and publisher, rather than your “this-is-revised-quite-nicely-don’t-you-think” draft.

    You’re up to it, and that’s what your readers need to read, as much as you need to write it. Good luck with it.

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