Book Review: Rewrites: A Memoir by Neil Simon

This is another book I found at the yearly Seattle Public Library book sale.  Before finding it in the rows, stacks, and piles of books scattered on the long tables, I never even knew it existed.  Neil Simon is a well-known playwright and screenwriter, though, and I am always eager to read memoirs and biographies of other writers.

Perhaps I under-described Simon’s fame in the paragraph above by merely stating he is well-known.  As of 2014, he has won a Pulitzer Prize, a Golden Globe Award, a Writer’s Guild of America award, and two Emmy Awards; he received seventeen Tony nominations and won three; and he has also been nominated for four Academy Awards.  Many of his plays and films are easily recognizable, such as “Barefoot in the Park”, “The Odd Couple”, “The Sunshine Boys”, “California Suite”, “Lost in Yonkers”, and “The Goodbye Girl”.

In the memoir, Simon briefly touches on his childhood, but most of it concerns his play writing – how he got started in the business and his trials and tribulations getting various plays from paper to stage.  I read with great fascination the stories of each play’s inspiration,  first draft, rewrites, pitches to directors and actors, rehearsals, more rewrites, first performances, and yet more rewrites.  Whether Simon was creating a play or a film, he was hands-on from beginning to end, there for conferences, tryouts, rehearsals every step of the way.  He would be constantly improving his work even as it was being performed.

This is a fascinating glimpse into the world of Broadway plays, and features anecdotes about some of the great directors and actors such as Mike Nichols, Robert Redford, Maureen Stapleton, Peter Sellers, George C. Scott and others.  But the great gift Simon gives his readers is the intimacy that is also prevalent in his plays, some of which are obviously autobiographical.  He brings you into his personal life; he chats with you as if you were an intimate acquaintance.  He makes you laugh and stress and weep with him as he sees his brainchildren through from conception to completion.

I don’t think I have been so edified and entertained with a celebrity’s memoir since I read Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography.  All right, Keith Richard’s memoir was also a great read, but that’s a horse of a vastly different color.  Simon’s prose is erudite, informative, yet accessible.  The one thing that annoyed me, especially at the beginning, was his penchant for throwing one-liners into the descriptions as if he were writing one of his plays.  There seems to be a preponderance of these zingers in the first few chapters, and after that Simon gets on with the business of telling his story, which is a relief.  If I want to watch a stand-up comedian I will do so, but in a memoir I am after a different experience.  I think part of it is simply that Simon has it in him; he is a very funny person.  He has the ability to mix comedy and tragedy both in this account of his life and in his performance art.

All in all, this is a great read, and I highly recommend it.  For one thing, it is deeply touching.  Simon has his finger on the pulse of humanity in his plays and films, and he manages to turn it effectively on himself.  For another, it gives great insight into the creative process, more than anything showing that every artist works differently, but it is the zeal, integrity, and whole-heartedness brought to the process that determines the outcome.  For yet another, it is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of the New York Broadway theater era of the 1960s and 70s from someone who was intimately involved.

One other insight the book gave me, or rather reinforcement of an insight I already had, is that each writer – and I mean every writer who has ever put pen to paper – is different.  The title of this book is a giveaway about Simon’s viewpoint on rewriting.  For him it is a constant process.  Some of it has to do with the state of theater in that era, but it also has to do with his inability to be satisfied with anything short of perfection.  It is obvious that he has a sixth sense, so to speak, of what works and what doesn’t, but he has to put the boat into motion before the rudder of his rewrites goes into effect.  I have read writing advice by others warning against rewriting (except to editorial orders) and I understand that argument as well, but it all boils down to the individual artist and what brings about the desired effect at the moment.  Personally, I have done both.  Many of my works have been written and published with only minor changes to correct occasional misspellings and grammatical errors.  Once in a while, though, I reread something I have written and realize something is fundamentally wrong with either the entire work or a piece of it.  If I am convinced that the piece of writing will benefit and that it is of sufficient importance to justify the expenditure of time, I will go ahead and rework it.  Otherwise I simply set it aside and move on to the next project.  Not only is every writer different, but every project that every writer works on is different.  That’s just how it is.

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