Monday, October 15, 2007

Lessons From Robin Swicord

This is the first of my posts about what I learned from panelists at AFF. Since my notes are unique to my particular needs, my pen is subjective and it ignored much information that would probably be highly valuable to somebody else. Such is the way these things go.

Robin Swicord, who was most familiar to me for Memoirs of a Geisha and Matilda, keeps story note journals with fascinating drawings of her ideas. The drawings don't need to be good or artistic sketches, she says, or even recognizable to anyone but the writer who draws them. The pictures serve to refresh the writer's memory of the visual that went along with a thought, joke, anecdote, or story idea.

Her reply to the standard "how do you deal with writers' block?" question was associated with another response about multiple drafts of screenplays. Until Robin, the only discussion about writers' block that hadn't bored me was Ted Elliott's "writers' block is for amateurs" remark to Jeff Goldsmith on a Creative Screenwriting podcast.

Robin says that in order for the child to play in the benign presence of the parent, the writer must disengage the inner critic and get to a place where he loves what he's doing. Otherwise, the result will be painful to the reader. The writer must give himself permission to play. Write that bad draft. Experiment and explore. All of this is based on other comments about having an outline so you'll know where you're going and can take those side streets all the while realizing that you may re-outline based on new discovery.

Do you have a favorite scene? Robin suggests that you should but that you might also want to write a few scenes that you have no intention of keeping. Write them for play, to get to know the characters better, or to help you recapture the freshness of the story and prep for or transition to the scene you really need to write.

Something Robin said about adaptations also struck a chord with me. Any two people can take away vastly different impressions of a book right down to the basic core of what the book is about. The basics? Really? How is that possible? Isn't a book about a duck always a book about a duck?


One person may think Little Women is about sisters growing up in poverty while another may focus on a theme of virtue and morality. For this reason, adaptations require compromise particularly if everyone is familiar with the work being adapted. She used Memoirs of a Geisha as an example. Robin had a certain theme in mind but was being asked to focus on the issue of overcoming slavery. She had to find away to do both.

Not only did that discussion bring home the point that writers like me can take different information away from panelists like her, but it reminded me how subjective all readers can be based on the reader's education, experience, and whether or not they had just caught their spouse in bed with the cable guy.

Okay, so from Robin Swicord, I got a cool idea to add sketches to my notebooks, advice about writing for play in the presence of the benign parent, and a reminder about the subjectivity of all readers. But, my favorite lesson from Robin Swicord? Don't suppose that because you don't plan to write adaptations any time soon, there's nothing to be learned from somebody who already has.


Unk said...

Or the drywall guy.


MaryAn Batchellor said...

Or gal even. Either way, makes for a cranky reader. I get cranky if I catch my dog drinking out of the toilet.

Anonymous said...

I just watched a writer DVD with her husband, Nick Kazan and he comments on her more disciplined writing rules than his own off the cuff style... I like her, I think she write a how-to book to if I recall?

MaryAn Batchellor said...

I don't know of a how-to book. Enlighten me if you come up with a title. Nick Kazan was there, too, but I haven't gone over my Nick notes, yet.