Saturday, March 1, 2014

How to Write Like Tom Robbins

 

     In 1982, the phone rang and it was Tom Robbins, one of my all time favorite authors. He had read a script of mine and liked it. He told me he was just getting started on a script of his own when he realized that he didn’t know what he was doing. He had never written in screenplay format before, so he felt the need for someone like me to look over his shoulder while he wrote, just to make sure he didn’t make any embarrassing mistakes. He would pay my way to La Conner, Washington, a small fishing village north of Seattle where he lived. He would put me up in a hotel for a month while he finished the project. I would pick up pages every afternoon and return them the next morning with comments. Was I interested?
     I didn’t have to think long. At the time, I was living in a photo studio above Frederick’s of Hollywood, a location with advantages (living across the street from Musso & Franks) and disadvantages (street cleaners every morning at four). But the main disadvantage was the eviction notice from the landlord.
     A year earlier, I had read in the L.A. Times that State Senator Alan Sieroty had passed a bill allowing artists to live in lofts that were zoned for commercial use. This was in reply to the burgeoning artistic community taking over warehouses in downtown L.A.
     Great, I thought, I’m an artist. I can move into my loft. It was a burden paying rent on two places anyway, so the next month I moved from my home to my studio. A year later, my landlord found out I was living there and decided to throw me out. When I got my eviction notice, it was signed by State Senator Alan Sieroty. I had never known that he was my landlord since I had always paid rent to a corporation.
     I refused to move, citing his own bill back at him, and he took me to court. While there, I told Sieroty that I had only moved into the loft because of his bill. I asked him why he wrote it. “That bill says that landlords can let artists live in their lofts,” he told me, “not that they have to.” He went on to explain that the rest of the building was commercial, and that if word got out that I was living there, the whole place could turn residential. People would start sleeping in the toy store and camping out in Fredericks. Right.
     The judge saw a hippie artist and a State Senator. Guess who he found for?
     I had no idea were I was going to move until La Conner beckoned, though my impending eviction was not my only motivation. I felt honored. Tom Robbins is one of those reclusive writers who simply hands in finished manuscripts that get published as they are. He gave up journalism years ago because he was tired of working with editors. The novel gave him complete control. He does not collaborate. I had absolutely no idea how he wrote his magical books, but if he was willing to learn from me, I was more than happy to learn from him too. I took the job.


      Tom picked me up at the Seattle airport in a green convertible and took me to La Conner, nearly two hours past Seattle, into the Skagit Valley, one of the most fertile farmlands in the world. The whole landscape had been memorialized by Tom in his book Another Roadside Attraction, and it was fascinating to see it for real. Like he said, it was distinctly Chinese, vast plains interrupted by sudden mountainous lumps of forest surrounded by clouds, the Cascades far to the east, giving an Alpine backdrop to the whole lush panorama. The only problem was Tom’s insistence on listening to tapes of Billy Eckstine, his favorite singer of the moment, but not mine.
     We drove through miles of blooming tulip fields until arriving at La Conner, which turned out to be more tourist trap than fishing village. The main street gave new meaning to the word quaint. If you are wondering where all the calico has gone, it has probably relocated to La Conner. Sure there was a local yacht harbor, but the main industry of La Conner is selling knickknacks to the thousands of tourists flocking to the tulip fields. Most of the tulips are not sold but cut down and dug up for the bulbs. La Conner calls itself the seed and bulb capital of the world, and residents pride themselves on it. They repeat the apocryphal story of a local woman who ordered some tulip bulbs from Holland, only to discover a “grown in La Conner” label on the bag when it arrived.
     We stopped at the only hotel in town to check in. It crossed the line from quaint into dilapidated. One night was enough. The next day I called a local real estate agent who found me a furnished apartment. It was on the edge of a mammoth cabbage seed farm. The cabbages were perfect, ready to eat, but they would never be picked. I moved in that day, and for the next month I saw the cabbages grow giant stalks until they turned to seed. I’d never seen anything like it. I felt like the ultimate Hollywood city slicker in the country. The next day, I headed to Tom’s for my first day of work.
     Tom lived a couple blocks away from the main drag. The first thing I noticed was the lack of curtains in the windows. People walking by could see into the house. Tom told me he didn’t like curtains. The house was surrounded by trees, and when they were full of leaves, they provided adequate coverage to the windows. It was only when the leaves fell that he suffered from lack of privacy, though suffer is the wrong word. Tom didn’t seem to mind that his life was open to the world, that people driving by could see who he was having dinner with. He had nothing to hide.
     First we socialized, sharing drinks and cigars. He mentioned that one of the pleasures of living in La Conner was the giant flocks of snow geese that settled there during the spring. He told me he had just seen a new flock in a nearby field, and that it would be worth my while to seek it out, though of course they changed location all the time.
     The next morning on my way to his house, and every morning thereafter, I would take long scenic detours through the countryside, seeking the flock, but they always eluded me.
     Finally, Tom briefly explained how he wrote his books. He treats writing like a nine-to-five job, writing eight hours a day, Monday through Friday. No writing allowed on weekends. He gets up in the morning, makes himself breakfast, lights a cigar, and sits at his typewriter.
     When he starts a novel, it works like this. First he writes a sentence. Then he rewrites it again and again, examining each word, making sure of its perfection, finely honing each phrase until it reverberates with the subtle texture of the infinite. Sometimes it takes hours. Sometimes an entire day is devoted to one sentence, which gets marked on and expanded upon in every possible direction until he is satisfied. Then, and only then, does he add a period.
     Next, he rereads the first sentence and starts writing a second, rewriting it again and again until it shimmers. Then, and only then, does he add a period. While working on each sentence, he has no idea what the next sentence is going to be, much less the next chapter or the end of the book. All thoughts of where he is going or where he has been are banished. Each sentence is a Zen universe unto itself, and while working on it, nothing exists but the sentence. He keeps writing in such a manner until he eventually reaches a sentence which he works on like all the others. He adds a period and the book is done. No editing or revising in any way. When you read a Tom Robbins book, you are experiencing the words not only in the exact order that he wrote them but almost in the exact order that he thought them.
     “But wait a minute,” I interrupted. “The first sentence of your first book, Another Roadside Attraction, is ‘The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.’ Are you telling me you wrote that sentence having absolutely no idea where it was leading?”
     “Yes,” he said. “I knew I could explain it later. I like painting myself in corners and seeing if I can get out.”


     This way of writing was so foreign to all my past experience that I was frozen with fear. This was no way to write a book, much less a screenplay. I had never written anything in my life that I didn’t rewrite - not a sentence at a time but the whole goddam thing. You always find yourself creating something in the end of a screenplay that needs to be set up better in the beginning. If you discover you need a gun in the third act, you have to go back and introduce one in the first act.
     Not Tom. Tom handed in his pages every so often to a professional typist, and as soon as they were typed up, they were done. He had been working a week before my arrival, so he gave me the twenty or so pages of his screenplay that had already been written. But he didn’t want any comments on them. They were done, period, set in stone, as would each day’s work be. Once the pages were typed, they were history. No use talking about them. And no use talking about future pages either. Each day’s work consisted of that day’s work and no other. If today we were working on the robbery scene, there would be no discussion allowed of the setup to, or outcome of, the robbery.
     This intense focus on THE MOMENT without any consideration of THE BIGGER PICTURE infuriated me. If he hadn’t been the man who wrote Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, I would have slapped him silly. No wonder he never worked with anyone else. How could anyone else work like this? How could I work like this? It went against every instinct I had as a writer. I felt I really did have something to teach him, but who was I to give advice to someone who had sold several million more books than me? It was like discovering that he typed with his feet instead of his hands.
     I decided that if this ridiculous writing method worked with his books, the more power to him. I’ll gladly dote on his every word when I read the books. But a screenplay is another animal. Writing a script in this way, considering each scene individually, without any thought to what comes before or after, is like doing a jigsaw puzzle by starting in the upper left hand corner and putting the pieces in - one row at a time. That’s just not how it works. You put a puzzle together by first gathering all the pieces with straight edges and building the frame. Similarly, a screenplay needs some sort of underlying structure before filling in the details.
     Problem number one was the ending. We were adapting one of Tom’s books, so the story was all there, though with Tom’s characteristic anarchy throughout. I thought the climax, while satisfactory in the book, was too literary to work in the film. I came up with a new ending that was completely visual and cinematic, one that would blow the minds of the viewers while also pleasing the readers of the book by bringing the film to a new level.
     I tried to bring up the subject, but Tom would have no talk of the ending until we were actually working on it. We scheduled a discussion of the ending for our last day together. The problem was that my ending needed to be set up correctly or it wouldn’t work. I figured out places in the script where we could foreshadow the new ending, but once again Tom would tolerate no debate over work that was weeks away. We could only discuss the scene before us. I sublimated my natural work style and worked his way.
     I had to be sneaky. Throughout the month, I managed to surreptitiously insert subtle clues to my ending in various unrelated scenes. When that final day arrived and we were actually discussing the ending, I summoned up all my acting ability and said “You know, I just thought of something. How about if it ended like this?” And I told him my idea.
     His eyes lit up, and he immediately delineated all the clues that I had previously laid. They all added up. “You know,” he said, “it just might work.” He asked me to type up a version of the end, and I gave it to him the next day. He re-wrote it and used it. I felt justified.
     I seriously doubt I had any further influence on Tom’s writing method, and though his style will always be one of my most profound influences, his method is one I still shun. I love cutting and pasting, and what you are reading right now was most assuredly not written in the order you are reading it. The word processor has had more influence over my method than anything else.
     So I departed La Conner, taking one last jaunt through the fields, and there they were, hundreds of geese settled into a field of cabbages. They took off and circled around towards Puget Sound. I smacked myself on the head. Why hadn’t it occurred to me before? I was so stuck in the literal that I didn’t even realize what Tom had done. He had sent me on a wild goose chase. One with a happy ending.


 
     What happened to the film of Another Roadside Attraction?

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