Friday, January 20, 2012

Working with a Writing Mentor, Part 1: Trusting the Advice

In the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to be a novice writer again when I tried to go outside my main genre of poetry to write plays. Since almost all of my earlier work was poetry, my first attempt at a play was basically a series of dramatic monologues, loosely stitched together. Luckily I had a very experienced mentor to help me in my first efforts as a playwright: the late Barbara Oliver, founder of the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, California; a veteran producer, director, and actor who brought many new plays to fruition. Barbara actually said to me after reading my first play, “You have to have the actors talk to each other when they’re on stage,” which gives you an idea of how unfinished that script was. Several years later, when I wrote my third play, Things I Didn't Know I Loved, based on the life and poetry of the Turkish writer Nazim Hikmet, Barbara Oliver read and critiqued many, many drafts of it.
Barbara provided me with numerous valuable suggestions on each version, telling me not to get too caught up in the research I had done, and dig for the drama in each scene. There was one scene in particular that Barbara objected to, but I wouldn’t let go of it. She quoted for me a comment she had heard the playwright David Mamet make, "Writing a play is like building an airplane. You have to get rid of everything that impedes the thrust." Think how streamlined a jet is. 
So Barbara convinced me to take out an entire scene that I was very attached to, a scene that involved Nazim’s relationship with the Turkish head of state, Ataturk, whom he had a complex admiration for and conflict with. But that scene didn’t move ahead the story of Nazim Hikmet’s life enough to merit its inclusion in the play. Working on my own, I would never have cut that scene, but at a certain point, I realized that Barbara just knew more than I did. She had decades of experience producing plays, some productions that had worked, some that had flopped, and she just knew. So I took her word for it and cut the scene. At times, you just have to go on faith and trust your mentor. I'll talk more about the mentoring relationship in my next few blogs.

Other recent posts about writing topics:

Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4  
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;  Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka


  1. thank you for sharing a little of your creative process. Although I found many of your blog post interesting to read but I thought this one was especially intriguing and relevant to me since I recently started working with a writing mentor.
    You stated it well, that letting go of preconceived notions of your work and to just go on faith and trust your mentor.

    1. Glad that post was useful for you. Sometimes you have to trust the comments, other times it doesn't feel right to do that. This was a case where I knew that my mentor was guiding me in a good direction.