Thursday, May 14, 2009

On Collaboration - or, stepping out of the f&#%ing cave

Being a writer is an often lonely, isolated endeavor; barring the hectic world of screenwriting and the other performing arts it's usually just you in your den or the school computer lab, huddled around an old notebook with dog-eared pages (or your two-year-old laptop with the funny "R" key that sticks when you press it), trying to drain your mind of the thoughts that, in all likelihood, have been slowly driving you insane since you were 10. Yeah, good times...

But every once in awhile, someone might come and waive a carrot big enough to entice us from our hermit caves, put on clean clothes for a change, shower and shave, and do something many of us aren't prepared to - work in a collaborative, equal venture with another writer. Now, this is different from just working with anyone on something like - say - a multi medium project; I myself have been locked in a very fruitful relationship with an artist on a graphic novel for the past few years. But working together is easy when you can immediately set out your respective roles, and decide who's leading the charge; however, two writers may need to undergo some serious adjustments to come to an understanding. Therefore, it helps if you have a good, thorough guideline to walk you through the delicate act of working together.

Unfortunately, I am nowhere-near qualified to give such a guideline.

But I can at least give some advice from my own experience on how to get off to a good start with what's probably the most important first step (cue random angel chorus): Understanding fully what makes you and your new partner different, and learning to respect and integrate those differences.

I doubt this'll surprise anyone, but you'd be amazed at how many take it for granted that the real fruits of a collaboration spring from how different you are from the other guy, and what those differences mean.

Take my case - a few months ago, I left my comfortable cave behind and ventured out into the open with another writer to finally get cracking on a graphic novel idea he had been flirting with for a while. At first, I was skeptical; I didn't want to leave my cave. I think most writers jealously guard our particular styles and feel we're giving up something about ourselves when we're forced to make changes that affect the way we write. Still, he is an old friend (and the carrot he held looked pretty damn tasty), so I gave it a chance, and immediately discovered two things: 1) We are very different in our approach to writing, and 2) that's actually okay. Most collaborators can expect some differences to pop up, but he and I are like night and day in so many ways - he's dynamic, intuitive, and very prolific; I'm more academic, and thoughtful of all my words and phrases. He sees the page as a wide-open canvas, and words as paint to splash and spread with all manner of colors, filling in the edges until it's time to move on to the next piece. I see the page as more of a blank word problem, with words serving as the right numbers, symbols, and equations to plug in and create the desired effect.

However, just as both a painting and a concise equation can mean "beauty" to the right crowd, our styles each have their own appeals, and by combining them we can spread a far wider net to our readers than either one of us can alone. Of course, there's going to be some initial grumbling as toes are stepped on and egos clash in the bid for who's style will predominate; however, those are no more permanent or damaging than that first annoying glint of the sunlight following years of hiding in a cave, and when all your rumples are smoothed out, you'll be amazed at how easy you fall into the rhythm, and how what you learn from your partner easily outweighs any initial problems you have. I can't speak for my friend, but I know I've become a little less structured and more intuitive in some of my projects, and I'm actually happy with that.

This isn't going to solve all problems, of course; you may not be compatible, or there are just too many differences to reconcile, or your partner is a complete and total jackass who isn't worth the time to spit on. The point, though, is to not avoid taking that chance in the first place - with very few exceptions, you stand to gain far more by saying yes than no.

So step out of that cave for a minute and take a stroll through the wilderness with a friend, even if only for a little while; because, just as there is more out there than the shadows on the wall you've been staring at all this time, you'll find that there are more ways than just yours to write a good story.

Please comment, if you like, and I'm curious as to whether artists go through the same thing when collaborating.

1 comment:

  1. Very well thought out advice I must say. I consider myself an artist but I have never been presented with the opportunity to collaborate with another fellow artist. I've heard accounts, though, of both failed and successful group projects. I imagine that one should approach such an opportunity with the same mindset you've expounded on in your post. I feel there are too many instances where people rush into a collaboration thinking up strategies to bowl over the ideas of the other members of the group in an effort to gain control over every aspect of the project. That kind of attitude will obviously antagonize the other members of the the group leading to pointless conflicts. Some time should be allocated, at the beginning of the project, to getting to know your other colleagues. What are their skills? What kind of work ethic does each possess? How can you take what you know about them to assign specific tasks to each one to ensure efficiency and the ultimate success of the project......k I'm done ^_^