Charles Heiner has an MFA in Creative Writing from McNeese State University. His fiction has been published in The Laurel Review, Fiction Weekly, Glossy News, The Spoof, Cheek Teeth, Dirtflask, and Specter. It has won McNeese’s annual fiction contest and been shortlisted for the Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. He collaborated on the script for the film with the working title Kim Jong 2: The Wrath of Un, and is currently working on a young adult novel, Challenge Challenge. He can be reached online at www.charlesheinerfiction.com. On Twitter he is @Charles_Heiner, on Facebook he is Charles Heiner, and on Instagram he is charles_heiner.
I hope you enjoy this meditation on the process of collaboration in the artistic sphere.
In December 2014 I got a mass email from Brian White, editor of the satirical news site Glossynews.com. I get these periodically since I’ve written for Glossynews. They usually announce a writing contest or an update on the site’s progress.
This one was different. Brian wanted to make a movie about North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. With Sony hesitating to release The Interview, in which Un is assassinated, Brian had decided to make his own movie, and he wanted help.
I quickly dismissed the idea. Two years into writing my young adult novel, tentatively titled Challenge Challenge, I didn’t want any distractions. I wanted to write serious literary fiction, as if writing comedy isn’t just as serious an endeavor.
In January Brian sent another mass email, this time with more detail. He had ordered costumes, put out a casting call and scouted locations. I wondered what it would be like to write more collaboratively. It wouldn’t be so lonely.
Also, something I wrote was going to be produced. I knew my excitement was old fashioned. Anyone can produce a movie with today’s technology. That doesn’t mean something has been accomplished.
I wrote back anyway. I had what I thought was a clever idea. Because of post-911 terroristic threat laws, America was facing a crackdown on freedom of expression. People all over the country were getting arrested for comments they had posted to social media, mostly tasteless jokes and violent song lyrics, and I wanted to compare that problem to the oppression in North Korea.
I submitted a scene in this vein. Brian liked it and asked me to revise a rough draft of the script. At first with trepidation, but gradually gaining confidence, I crossed out other writers’ lines and replaced them with my own, sometimes rewriting the middle of somebody else’s scene. Feeling empowered, the way I imagined editors did, I emailed it to Brian and one of the other writers working on the script, the novelist and satirist Benjamin Cain.
They were nice about it, not immediately mentioning how it looked like two completely different scripts had been spliced together. I spent my next revision crossing out most of what I had written. We were all over the place. While I was set on pointing out American hypocrisy, Benjamin wanted to allude to the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris, and Brian wanted to write about Un hiring hackers to attack Sony’s website.
In the end I decided to stick with Brian’s idea, and not only because he replaced my horrible, nightmarish ending with his upbeat and funny one, but because he was doing all the work, the real labor of working with actors and a film crew, of securing sites and seeking distribution, stuff that would intimidate me more than the severest writer’s block. What right did I have to make any big decisions? It was his project.
Only a few of my lines made it into the final script, which has the working title Kim Jong 2: The Wrath of Un. It’s not politically correct and it’s certainly not high art, but I had a good time participating in the process. It’s taught me about the value of collaboration, and by extension the value of keeping an open mind, but what I find most rewarding is the shared experience, the knowledge that I am not alone in this writing thing. Collaborating on a story offers a different kind of camaraderie than taking a class or being in a critique group. With those, people are all working on different things, no matter how much of a window they have into each other’s work.
I will never know if this experience has made me a better writer, but it has changed me. Don’t worry. I won’t flood my novel with political parody, but some of my characters might tell a joke or two they wouldn’t have told before. I’ll try new things and see how that changes the story.
Trying new things is what got me this opportunity. If I had never tried writing satire, Brian would have never heard of me. I got the urge to write satire after I started meditating in 2010, another new experience. After that I tried flash fiction. More recently, something I read in the novel class I’m taking with the great teacher and writer Mary Kay Zuravleff (where I’m supposed to be focusing on my novel, not on silly movies) reminded me of one of my old short stories. I’m taking time to rewrite that as well.
Now I’m focused on my novel again. The novel is taking longer with these other projects, but that’s because I’m getting more done. It takes more time that way.