What I Learned as a Fiction Writer Collaborating on My First Screenplay and What It Taught Me About Democracy: A Personal History

* Guest post by fiction writer and member Sabrina Tom

In 2nd grade I was voted bossiest in the class slam book. A bad label for a girl of any age. So recently when I agreed to partner with a friend to write a screenplay this was what I was most worried about. Never mind I didn’t know a thing about writing scripts. I just didn’t want to be a jerk. Which challenged me. As a fiction writer, I’m used to calling the shots. Being ruthless and uncompromising is part of the job. But as a screenwriter I had to respect the other person in the room. I had to listen to someone else’s ideas for a change, and not only listen, but really consider them. Even when they were unworkable or terrible or great, it made our script better to approach writing from the belief that all ideas deserved equal treatment.  

In middle school I took on my nemesis in a series of fierce mock debates. At issue was the future of the two real life candidates running for President that year, an old money Reagan acolyte and a bushy-browed governor. My teenage nemesis and I were passionate and uninformed, focused less on the issues (capital punishment) than on personal attacks and name-calling (supporting it made you a murderer; rejecting it made you a coward). Fast forward to my writing partner and I seated across from each other, disagreeing about everything from the names of our characters to whether a scene involving two dancers should be set to drum and bass or hip hop. I was on the brink of war—her ideas vs mine—and getting extremely worked up. I’m not averse to conflict. When I write short stories I have to resolve conflicting ideas all the time. The difference is that I don’t think myself any better or worse for having them. I’m able to separate the ideas from the person. But now here I was, questioning not only her ideas, but her humanity. What writer—what person—could live up to such double standards? Fortunately that awareness was exactly what I needed to keep the peace.

Back to elementary school, to the time I ran, and lost, for president of student council. But then, a mere few hours later, the school principal removed the winner—a popular dolt named Terry—and put me in his place. Whether the principal had performed a straight up coup or an act of much needed oversight, I learned two upsetting truths that day: 1) being likeable always wins more votes than being competent and 2) getting ahead depends entirely on personal relationships with powerful people. That’s why I love writing. At its essence, fiction writing is non-hierarchical. There’s no I. This is even truer in screenwriting, the nature of which, as Faulkner famously put it, is about pitching in. There’s nothing to be gained by being precious about what’s on the page. Pitch in, and know that roles and credits don’t tell the truth.

Writing my first screenplay wasn’t easy. There was a new structure to learn, not to mention the techniques of writing for visual impact and sustaining dramatic energy, but none of these seemed nearly as important as understanding how screenwriting, as a collaborative process, in many ways reflected the very principles of democracy: Equality. Accountability. Participation. And one more: Representation. Working with a fellow Asian American was wonderfully creative, exotic, and empowering. It filled a void in my artistic practice I hadn’t known existed. It’s the only thing I’d change about my day job.

Sabrina Tom is a Taiwanese American writer. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in literary journals such as Hyphen, Mom Jeans, Redivider, The Kartika Review, and The New Orleans Review. Her essays and art criticism have been anthologized widely and translated into French, German and Icelandic. She’s been a member of theOffice since 2015.