What the “Collaborative Process” REALLY Means to Writers

All we can say is, “Oy vay!”


The Local Lens
by Thom Nickels

Writing a successful play or screenplay is no easy task. When I was commissioned to write a play about the young Abraham Lincoln several years ago by a California-based producer, I had no idea the project would take me into the dizzying orbit of “devised” or collaborative work.

Collaborative work is a tricky and dangerous terrain. After all, the expression, “A camel is a horse designed by committee,” didn’t evolve out of thin air.

This figure of speech takes a dim view of committees and group decision-making, at least when it comes to the incorporation of too many conflicting opinions into a single creative project.

“Too many cooks spoil the broth,” also sends the same message, that being: everything is spoiled if too many people participate in a single task.

There are exceptions, of course. Editors, I think, can work collaboratively but it is an entirely different ballgame for writers. When an ex-New York screenwriter I know told me about her experiences as one of twelve—yes, twelve—writers for a TV sitcom, I wondered how a roomful of people like that could get anything done.

This friend told me that the writers would sit around a huge conference table with their notepads and pens, and that after scribbling lines of dialog, they would compare notes and brainstorm. After multiple revisions and discussions, they would brainstorm again and then vote on the best lines.

When the writing session was over, they would order take-out.

An excruciating process, to say the least, for how do you get twelve people to agree on anything, much less a storyline for a TV sitcom? Twelve may be an apostolic number, but it’s too many brains for a smooth consensus. Think of the angst and tribulations that juries go through when it comes time to reach a verdict.

I had always thought of writing a play as a solitary endeavor, like the way novelist Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel) wrote his novels on yellow legal pads standing up in his kitchen and using his refrigerator as a desk top. Wolfe also had the rustic habit of submitting his manuscripts to his publisher in longhand.

Some writers, while not of a collaborative mind, are able to write in public. This is especially true of French writers. One has only to think of the artists who were able to concentrate in cafes like the Café Flores on the St. Germain-des-Pres in Paris. Café Flores is where Jean-Paul Sartre wrote notes for his play No Exit. It’s also where Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s primary mistress (he had more than one), worked out many of her projects as well. On the other hand, the novelist Colette locked herself in her house in order to find the concentration to work. Marcel Proust (Remembrance of Things Past), however, was so noise-phobic that he wrote all day in a cork lined room, surfacing only in the evening when he went out with his coachman to Paris’ nineteenth century gay places.

As a student in Baltimore, I tried the writing-in-public thing, only I didn’t go to cafes but to the local Greyhound bus station where I wrote poems about the people I observed. There’s never a shortage of oddballs in bus stations. Mostly I felt like a poseur writing this way. Not surprisingly, none of the poems produced under the glare of a bus station security guard proved to be any good.

The start of my project for the California producer was like a honeymoon in Versailles. Although not a writer himself, the producer suggested reference books, trips to important Lincoln “hot spots,” conferences and lectures to attend in order to help improve my knowledge of the man. Problems at that time were minimal and the future for the play looked bright.

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