Rewriting Chapter One

Here’s some thoughts on the art of rewriting. And a quick update. Update first. About three-quarters of the way through rewriting chapter one. Chapter one introduces the building blocks of the risk theatre: the hero’s temptation, the hero’s wager, and the hero’s cast (of the die). It’s all a gambling metaphor. Simple, you say: the hero rolls the dice and loses. End of tragedy. Well, it is that simple and it isn’t that simple. In my mind it’s that simple. But once I start to put in into words, it becomes quite complicated. So much so that I’m now a week behind my self-imposed schedule. The goal was one chapter on the first of each month.

Why’s it complicated? Well, sometimes things just don’t work out when you put them into words. Or, when you put thoughts into words, unforeseen problems come up. The latest one is the gambling metaphor of looking at each dramatic act as a gambling act. You’ll recall that my idea of tragedy is built up from a gambling metaphor: the hero’s temptation, the hero’s wager, and the hero’s cast. Once I started committing the idea onto paper, it occurred to me that something was very wrong with the hero’s wager.

In the actual game of gambling, the gambler antes up for a chance to win the pot. If the gambler wins, he keeps his ante and the pot. So, if the gambler antes up $5 and wins the $10 pot, he finishes with $15. Well, in the risk theatre, the hero loses or sacrifices what he antes up. So, if Macbeth stakes the milk of human kindness to win the crown, when he gets the crown, he loses the milk of human kindness. Similarly, when Antigone stakes her civic obligations to fulfil her religious obligations, she forsakes her civic obligations when she fulfils her religious obligations. If the gambling metaphor were spot on, if Macbeth or Antigone were to win the round, they should be able to keep both the milk of human kindness and the crown (in the case of Macbeth) or fulfil both her civic and religious obligations (in the case of Antigone).

So this has been holding me up on chapter one. The surprising thing is that I’ve been thinking about this idea for years now (and have even written the first draft). The problem of the incongruence between the gambling metaphor and the dramatic action has never occurred to me. It is only through thinking about everything carefully in the rewrite of chapter one that the problem cropped up. Rewriting is very useful: since the writer has already got the skeleton of the idea down, brainpower can be devoted to working the ideas through. Writing the first draft was really a test to see whether there was enough in the risk theatre (or myself) to write a book. The ideas were only half-baked at that stage, as the point of the first draft was really only some kind of a proof of concept. Rewriting is where the real thinking takes place. In fact, thinking and writing are allied concepts: thinking (the hard thinking) only takes place through the process of writing things into words. The mind always thinks that its ideas work. Writing is what proves that they actually work.

So what did I do? Nothing. After recovering from the shock, it didn’t seem that bad. Metaphors are metaphors. If they worked perfectly, they wouldn’t be metaphors. They would be the real thing. What counts is that the metaphor allows you to see something in a productive way. The gambling metaphor achieves this in tragedy by highlighting the element of risk. The gambling metaphor also captures the obsession, abandon, and loss that heroes experience as they go for the gold. And, on top of this all, tragedians frequently insert gambling metaphors into the mouths of their heroes. So, the gambling metaphor is double justified: first, it highlights the element of risk in theatre. And second, dramatists use the gambling metaphor themselves.

Getting back now to the theme of rewriting. What does rewriting do? It forces the writer to think the idea through. Ideas always work out in the writer’s mind. Rewriting is to the writer what experimentation or the scientific method is to the scientist: it’s a way of proving an idea works. It subjects the idea to the rigours of logic and rhetoric. By writing, the writer is forced to demonstrate that it works. The more rewrites the better. But, mind you, there comes a time just to move on as well.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m re-Doing Melpomene’s Work.

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