Week Six: Scene Performance.
Whether you are rewriting a novel or a filmscript, scene performance brings your work into the world. When you watch your scene being read, you learn big lessons about timing, compression, pacing, waste, laughs, moans, chills, and momentary glory. Five weeks of work climax here, in a five minute read. A smart writer takes notes. Instructor feedback is optional. Curtain.

  • Last day of teaching.
  • Last day of Rewriting 101.
  • Last day of chatting about writing at the Café Argento.

In the European manner of restaurant owners, Faizel, the smiling proprietor, shakes my hand and wishes me good luck on my journey. The weekly gathering of writers in his place of business has won his heart. It’s raining outside, walkers pass by, huddled in Hoodies. People stare at the sky, faces wet, thinking sun.

Today at the Argento, the writers seem busier—their lives are crammed full of families, babies, jobs—but they have carved out this time, two hours on Wednesday, for their writing.

The Workshop

The warmup writing on Day Six is five minutes of dialogue preceded by deep breathing. I am safe here in the library at Hugo House, safe among these writers, so I write a dialogue between Charley and his Mom, as he probes her back story for dirt, knowing in the back of my mind, that I follow the same path taken by Jack Burden, the narrator of All the King’s Men, when he dug up some family dirt that would kill his father.

When I read aloud on Day Six, my dialogue sounds hollow. Red alert: my Stern Judge-Internal Critic-Superego is alive and well. The solution is discipline: Type it up. Let it sit. Write more dialogue. Go.

Scene Performances

The words crackle. The action revs. The sizzle of improvement fills the room. Writers who struggled with the five minute time-limit on Day One now squeeze more into their scenes. Objects, a foreign-language word on Day One, pour forth from the scenes: glasses and pistols, swords and satchels, axes and water balloons, urns and suitcases and a pile of books that becomes a wall of separation—normal stuff, and, if used right, the stuff of fine writing.

In the space below, we reprint a slice of a scene from a stage play, followed by a short analysis. If you print this out, and then if you circle the words that repeat, you’ll see order and coherence. Start by circling boxes, urn, book, nothing, and references to books. Draw boxes around dialogue lines from Rachel’s HEADACHE and repeated phrases like You can go/leave.

RACHEL sits in a corner of ARTEMIS’s living room surrounded by boxes.  ARTEMIS lies on the couch. HEADACHE stands near RACHEL’s elbow. A small urn sits on the mantle.

HEADACHE: That’s not Artemis’s book. Wrong stack.

RACHEL: This Anne Rice is mine. Goes on the “mine” stack. (The piles of books become part of a low wall that separates RACHEL from the rest of the room.)

ARTEMIS: I bought all the Anne Rices.

RACHEL: Shut your eyes.

ARTEMIS: So I can’t see which of my things you’re taking? Shut my eyes! You shut your eyes. Use your ears for a minute, even twenty seconds. If you’re going to be here, you have to help me. I’m not supposed to be up and mobile.

HEADACHE: You can leave.

RACHEL: I can leave.

ARTEMIS: Yes, you can go wherever you please with your healthy, strong body. You can walk right out the door. You can walk away from life and love. Go.

RACHEL: My belongings are here.

ARTEMIS: Oh! Your belongings. Nothing else could possibly be here with me. Nothing in this house. Nothing in this person. Nothing in your memories or desires. I’d rather—I wish you would stay  

(Overlapping) away.               RACHEL: Thank you.

ARTEMIS: For twenty seconds! That’s not what I asked for.

HEADACHE: Lie down. Take it easy.

RACHEL lies down amongst the boxes.

ARTEMIS: What are you doing?

RACHEL: I have a headache. I’m taking it easy.

Scene Analysis

  • Title: From Beyond the Grave
  • Form: Stage Play
  • Location: Act II, Scene 1
  • Setting: The House
  • Echo words: shut, leave, walk, belongings, nothing, lie, easy.
  • Symbolism: Rachel uses the pile of books to cut herself off.
  • Setup and payoff: Separation is the set-up; getting together later is the pay-off.
  • Lesson to writers: don’t be afraid to repeat.
  • Spine: The spine is possession. Who owns what, from the house to books. Who has possession of the urns?

The Art of Teaching – a  Short Goodbye

I have been a teacher since graduate school, where I spent six unforgettable weeks reading Moby-Dick. I got lost in Melville’s prose. How did this guy – surveyor, ship-jumper, harried husband, user of alcoholic spirits – how did this American guy who spent his last years as a customs inspector find a place in himself where he could write power-prose like this:

Ahab in Chapter 34, The Quarter Deck:

“I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the horn, and round theNorwaymaelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.”

Look at the structure:

“I’ll chase him

            round Good Hope, and

            round the horn, and

            round theNorwaymaelstrom, and

            round perdition’s flames

            before I give him up.

                        And this is what ye have shipped for, men!

                        to chase that white whale

                                    on both sides of land, and

                                    over all sides of earth,

                                    till he spouts

                                                black blood

and rolls fin out.”


He creates rhythm with the careful repetition of round, round, round, round.

To show Ahab’s relentless quest for revenge, Melville widens the geography of the chase on rough seas leading to hell (perdition’s flames), starting with known geography – Cape of Good Hope, Horn of Africa, Norway Maelstrom – to include the whole world:

  • both sides of land
  • all sides of earth

The passage climaxes in concrete language – black blood – and death throes for the whale: “and rolls fin out.” And how did this prodigious book fare in the book-stores? Reviewers called it “demonic.” The best-seller in those days was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And no one understood the book, except a fellow-writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Here’s Melville, the grateful published author, writingHawthorne in 1851. “A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book.” When you become a published author, think of Melville.

Getting lost in language (Melville, Eliot, Nabokov, Durrell), I earned my Ph.D. I thought about hanging out in the university library forever, reading from A to Z, becoming a true Man of Letters. Instead, I took a teaching job atBeloitCollege, a liberal arts school inSouthern Wisconsin. What a deal. A way of getting paid for reading novels! And the students were so bright!

I had my ticket, my union card. Now I had to learn the trade. Every teacher I knew did lectures, so I tried lecturing for six weeks, until I noticed sleepers nodding in the back row, wasting my time. So I switched to Question and Answer and they woke up back there, and my classes came alive, and students dragged their lazy friends to my classes, but it wasn’t until years later, when I studied with Natalie Goldberg in Taos, that I found writing practice – grab a startline, set the timer, and go – which grounded the teaching in the mechanical thrust of scribbling on the page, followed by reading your words aloud.

If you stay with the writing, if you follow the discipline of writing practice, you can reach that Melvillean Place inside yourself, where the tropes of Greek rhetoric mesh with poetry, where you forget who you are, where you forget, under the spell of the timer, the thing you are writing (novel, script, poem, essay) – and let the words take you deep. 

Thank you, Natalie.

And I remember teaching with Jack, and one special day in Elements of Dramatic Writing, the end of a six-hour class on scene-building, the writers in the room yawning, their pens scratching across the page, Neanderthal scrawls coming from the hard classroom seats where thousands had sat before them. When the timer beeped, the writers stood like English schoolboys to read to the room.

Except for the voices of the readers, there was absolute silence.

The voices sang, the tears flowed, tear-ducts gaping open like trapdoors in the soul. The written words when spoken aloud carved out a sacred moment on a weary Saturday afternoon, no impatience in the audience of writer-listeners, no shuffling of feet, no checking the time – because writing practice had brought them together, turned the room into a cathedral, formed the writers into a choir, and now they sang solos.

Back to Course Description for Rewrite 101, Spring 2011

© Robert J. Ray , All Rights Reserved ~ Rewriting 101, Spring 2011