THE BLOG
12/09/2012 07:41 pm ET | Updated Feb 08, 2013

Rehearse, Rewrite, Rehearse, Rewrite...

A pervasive myth suggests that geniuses produce their masterworks in a finished state. That the poem came to them in a dream, beautiful and complete, or the theory somehow unspooled from their pen without input from others. This is an excellent myth for geniuses and artists to cultivate about themselves, because it elevates their work to a superhuman nirvana, far beyond the hills of balled-up paper and months of frustrated redrafting that mark most projects in progress.

The nirvana is a fantasy. The number of works requiring endless revisions and false starts far dwarfs those birthed easily into the world. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, tortured The Great Gatsby through a Herculean number of drafts in order to create what many view as one of the finest novels of the past century. Physicists and scientists and mathematicians will tinker with a theory until it's proven or they drop dead, whichever comes first. Your initial idea, no matter how seemingly brilliant at first, can always use a little refinement. An intellectual always wants to craft a clear and truthful work, one that presents their ideas in the best possible light, even if it means endless revamps and tweaks.

Putting This Theory Into Practice

I know a book editor in charge of wrangling some very big authors. She advises them to shove the first draft of their latest book in a drawer and keep it shut for months. Her logic is straightforward: An emotional attachment to your creation can drive you to work on it for weeks or months or years -- but for all the good it does as motivation, emotion also blinds you to the flaws. (Just ask the mother whose little snookum-wookums baby is a three-hundred-pound biker-gang enforcer with more tattoos than the California state prison system and frightening skill with a knife.) Time away from your project allows those emotions to cool, and for the details to become so unfamiliar you can revise with a cold and analytical eye. One thing you notice when reading biographies of famous intellectuals is how they keep circling back to the same ideas, probing for new angles, sometimes until the executor of their estate pries the work from their cold, dead fingers.

A similar theory applies to public performances, such as a lecture or speech. Rehearsal (in the mirror, aloud, or before an audience of friends) presents the opportunity to strengthen the weak parts, edit for length, and adjust your cadence. Yes, some of history's greatest speeches were delivered fast and loose, the products of great emotion. But many more passed their speakers' lips only after considerable thought, and enough rewrites to keep a paper mill running for a year.

And the Inevitable Footnote...

Sometimes those numbers or words on the page become too precious: you succumb to the urge to tweak, add, delete, adjust, shorten, move sections, lengthen, and then burn the damn thing in the nearest wastebasket and start again from scratch. More than one creator has abandoned an epic project out of sheer frustration, or kept writing until their manuscript mutated into a multi-thousand-page monster. Ralph Ellison, award-winning author of Invisible Man (not to be confused with H.G. Wells' book about a lunatic Brit with severe pigmentation issues) worked on his follow-up novel for decades, amassing untold pages in the process, and declined to publish until the day he died--a loss, many would argue, for American literature. Sometimes it's worth sending your project out into the world, if only so you can free your mind to move onto the next one.

Loosely adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media.

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