Tuesday is as barren of incident and meaning, in the life of the movie critic, as any other day. Indeed, it is hard to see what the critic can look forward to with a rising heart, apart from the end of the next Kevin Costner film. If, however, the hand of doom is capricious enough to lead you through the mines of Moria to the clanging gates of TheNew Yorker, then Tuesday is a time of rare enchantment.
To understand the reason, we must rewind 24 hours. For the in-house critics, Monday has been an inferno, for that is when we file our copy. As a rule, writers are not a pretty sight; indeed, as a secondary rule, you should never trust a writer who is pretty. If he or she is pretty, then what on earth has he or she got to complain about, and therefore, by extension, what is left for him or her to write about? What is his or her fucking problem? My idea of a dependable writer is Flaubert, who looked like a dugong with a head cold, or George Eliot, who bore a surprising resemblance to last year’s winner of the Kentucky Derby.
But writers are at their least pretty, perhaps, when they are actually writing. Eyes redden, caffeine levels rise like geysers, fingernails go missing without trace. Given the amount of hair-tearing that goes on, it should be statistically provable that 85 percent of poets, say, are completely bald and that a formal meeting of the creative writing faculty at any major university should be indistinguishable from a box of free-range eggs. Yet poets are, and always have been, irretrievably hairy, a mystery that only Darwin could solve; it may be that they have evolved to the point of waking every morning with a full thatch, which is then ripped out in frustration over the course of the day, the last strands vanishing in the early evening, during a fruitless hunt for a word that rhymes with “tulip” or “Kalashnikov.”
There is a myth at large in the general population, easily quashable yet somehow allowed to persist, that writing comes smoothly, like gas from a pump, or at least unbidden, like tears. This is bull. No decent prose is ever dashed off, especially that which appears to be effortlessly dashing. Just as Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks had to rehearse their leaps and pratfalls, so grace on the page has to be earned with infinite sweat. I was told recently of a manuscript of Couples, which has come into the possession of a college library and which is apparently forested with sweet-smelling revisions; when even as Mozartian a stylist as John Updike needs to retrace and smooth his steps, what hope for the rest of us? (The exception to the rule is Mozart himself, but then, next to Mozart, the rule seems to be that creativity itself, the plashing fount of human invention, is in fact no better than a rusty cement-mixer—all churn, slap, and grind.) This may explain why, in common with Bob Geldof, I don’t like Mondays.
And so to Tuesday. Tuesday is a treat because Tuesday gives me leave not to write, which signals pain, but to rewrite, which augurs joy. Between the squalls of composition and the bathetic pangs of publication comes an interval of peace in which I return to the work, print it out in proofs, immediately spy 17 correctable errors for every 1,000 words, lop off whole paragraphs like a tree surgeon hacking at a larch, and tenderly position the remainder so as to give the impression, or the illusion, of coherence. The thrill of this activity is not, strictly speaking, a literary matter; it is, in its small way, more of a spiritual hint, reminding us that, more often than not, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, that we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and that there is no health in us. Rewriting is one of the few pursuits in life which enable us to make good our mistakes, or to make better our cheesy efforts, and to get immediate results; what is more, all of this can be achieved without having to buy flowers, lingerie, or chocolate truffles.
In the case of TheNew Yorker, of course, the rewrite is no more than a bold step in a treacherous process. If this were an Indiana Jones movie, I would merely have proceeded to the next plank in the creaking, swaying rope bridge over a ravine. Below me, the crocodiles gape. One more pace, twice as fraught, will bring me to the fact-checking department, into whose miasmic maw writers far stronger than I have disappeared, their cries fading into the dark. Pray God that I come out alive.