Creative Collaboration in Student Writing

In my last post update, I proposed my search for true collaborative writing between students at the university level. To be honest, my expectations were low prior to sitting in on my screenwriting roommate’s script workshop. But I am happy to report that I’ve found it! I’ve found students who are actually willing to, and capable of, sharing in all of the writing process: pre-writing, writing, and revising.

My roommate has collaborated with directors before—this was not her first rodeo. From all the stories of her previous partnership, I cobbled together a prejudice about writer-director relationships: the director takes the reigns on much of the storyline construction and characterization and the screenwriting takes control of the physical act of writing. In this setup, directors act as pre-writing supervisors, revisers, and editors, with the screenwriter doing the detailed legwork and maintaining a feeling of authorship. It seems like a decent enough division of labor on paper—the director directs the “vision,” as we like to call it, and the screenwriter writes. Duh.

But there is a problem. The title of screenwriter holds less power and importance in this relationship, because much of the creative brainchild comes from the director while the mechanics are left up to the writer, unless the writer actively pushes for greater involvement and unless their personal relationship allows for the writer to have a say. The problem then sleeps quiet until the issue of copyright and on-screen credit rears its ugly head.

The screenplay was a collaborative effort, yes, but not an equal one. Both parties don’t deserve co-writing credits, so the director often adopts a “story by” or “created by” credit and leaves the “written by” credit for the screenwriter, again keeping the more respected (and better paid) credit for her- or himself while the writer gets shafted.

So when I entered the room last weekend to sit in on my first writer-director workshop, I was primed for disappointment and disapproval. Instead, I discovered the magical unicorn of collaborative relationships.

This was the third meeting in their writing process; they had a shared understanding of the tone, plot points, characters, and message and the director had written the first draft of the script. My roommate, the writer, read the draft and the notes written by the director’s classmates in his thesis workshop course and gave her opinion about their opinions. Then they discussed elements of the draft that they liked, disliked, were unsure of, and so forth. Before breaking, they laid out the rules of the universe and cemented character backstories so they could ensure their story would be rooted in some sort of credibly constructed context. My roommate then prepared to take the draft and write her own, incorporating the best elements, notes, and ideas discussed in their meeting.

Let me repeat: the director wrote a draft, handed it over to the writer, and asked her to write her own version. Upon reconvening the next week, they would have a new script with new notes from the workshop course and be able to continue developing the best possible script version.

I have never in my life met a director so willing to allow his brainchild and his creative writing to be totally gutted by someone else. I have never seen a director at Dodge trust another screenwriter at Dodge and be so open to critique and advice.

Maybe I’ve been missing out on a whole new world of wonderful writing relationships that fly under the radar here at Chapman. Or maybe I just happened to stumble upon something rare and unique. Or…maybe most people don’t collaborate in this way because it’s impossible and the end result will devolve into a confused mish-mash of two different brainchildren.

Stay tuned for more updates, because this phenomenon is worth keeping track of.


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