Creative Collaboration: On Being Islands In the Stream
When I watch musicians perform, I often feel a pang of admiration and longing about the way they can be in the zone together, sharing a creative experience. They're making music by playing individual instruments, but when they play together, they're tapping into something that's bigger than the separate components of drum, guitar, piano.
And oh, how I love duets! Voices together: the effortless celebration that is harmony. The vivid feeling of togetherness that only comes when two disparate voices sing together at once. And the delight of hearing two sides of a single story.
Writers of literary fiction don't collaborate like that very often. It's not because we're loners by nature (though that may also be true) – it's just that we need a lot of solitude to get our work done. At least, I do. Because of the focused nature of writing voice, character consciousness and point of view, I've always understood that it would be very difficult to create a unified story if I tried to write it with someone else.
Editors and writers and translators are collaborating every day, I know. Television is written collaboratively. And anthologies and reading festivals put authors side by side in different ways for some interesting chemistry. But how would two people write one story together? How would decisions be made about character, setting, and story development? My writing process is intensely personal. Doing it with someone else? Impossible.
So when author (and friend) Heather Jessup approached me about co-writing a chapter for a collaborative novel project, I flattened my ears back, initially.
I've written 'with' Heather for a long time. She knows me, and she understands my writing process. She was my very first page-trader (page trading = an agreement you make with another writer to write and email your work to each other every week, but not for comment). I trust her, and I like her ideas. So eventually, I agreed.
The whole project was a collaborative experiment: the editors of the novel had already picked a setting and a time (a fictional university campus, around 8:30am) and asked writers to contribute a chapter that explored a day in the life of a character. The character had to be on campus that morning, and she/he had to be at a crossroads in her life. Beyond that, we were free to write whatever we wanted.
Heather and I started with a character. Looking back, we now say that our character chose us. We came up with her/ talked about her on the phone one afternoon, and from there, we started writing. It was page-trading again, but this time we could tinker with each other's passages and add more story of our own on each trade.
Beyond the aforementioned setting, time, and character, we did not have an outline or plan. We discovered our story as we went along.
It was a great surprise to both of us when it worked. The chapter stands on its own as a short story, and we recently read from it together at the book launch in Vancouver. We're both proud of it, and this feels easy to say, because this story is a duet! The sum of the chapter is larger than our two separate parts: the story is more than us.
Here's what I learned from the experience:
All creative writing is collaborative. It will always feel like you are working with another (mysterious) source when you are creating. When Heather and I experienced this we called it by our character's name. Things came to both of us, through the consciousness of this character, that we can't really explain. This part was just like writing solo.
Your story is always bigger than you. You can't outsmart it - it's always a few paces ahead of what you know. You're not creating the meaning of your story, you're writing in order to discover what your story wants. Be attentive, and get the story down without judging it. Writing in a duet was humbling: I re-learned this lesson every day, when I had to put away my big ideas and learn how to read and follow the story's signals.
Sometimes it's very good to write fast. In this project, I had so little time to think about what I was writing, I whipped off scenes without care or concern. In my case, this was the key to finding an unselfconscious voice and style. I remember that I was on a book tour, on a flight from Newfoundland to Sechelt, and I had to write part of the chapter in the airport while waiting at a gate for my flight. I barely had time to reread it before I pressed send. Thank goodness: had I spent time rereading, I would probably have convinced myself to cut some of the more outlandish and risky passages I'd written – but my subconscious knew that they were just right for the story.
When you surrender collaboratively, magic can happen. Working with Heather forced me to stop pre-planning the story. I couldn't! Each week, I'd receive another pack of pages from Heather, with new parts of the story revealed to me for the first time. I had to relinquish control, and I am convinced that this is why it worked. (This is also known as "getting out of your own way.")
The collaborative novel is called At The Edge, and you can buy it at Canadian bookstores, or here. The chapters are unmarked, and part of the fun of reading it is trying to guess who wrote what, so I won't spoil the surprise.
Yours in collaboration,