It’s Writer Gospel: “Writing is the loneliest profession.” Picture the writer in her garret, cold and alone, battling against a sheaf of empty pages.
I offer you my Writer Heresy: Horseshit. Writing may be the most collaborative of the artistic modes of expression. The myth of the Solitary Writer holds us back.
While opportunities to collaborate are all around us, still our myths cause us to deny them.
One of my very closest writing tribe, Emily, and I went through a period where almost every word we wrote we exchanged. Not just line-edits and craft comments, but probing give-and-take on intent and meaning and character, dissections of the bones of the work. Several years in, I commented how grateful I was for such a deeply collaborative space in each other’s process.
Her response was quick and definitive. While it was nice for me to comment on her work, it was her work only, and my work was my work only. The end.
On a certain level she was right. Whatever my questions of her work, she answers the questions and makes the decisions. Of course.
But, of course, This, as well: My project as a writer is to tell stories that enable people to reach through their particularized lives to gain reflection on what it is to live among others. While being an individuated human is complicated, we are never doing it alone. If my writing is to express that, it is unnatural to expect to generate that expression from a point of aloneness.
This manifests on multiple levels for me. When I returned to writing after too long, an acquaintance of mine, Maurice, and I started meeting monthly to trade drafts of the (terrible, horrible, no-good) novels we were drafting. We learned from each other. Maurice’s novel was his novel and my novel was my novel, but they would not have been the same had we not engaged in that process.
Two years later, Maurice and I joined a handful of others to form a multi-genre group, the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance. We share our newest and rawest work in a trust-filled environment. We discuss intention and process; we share news about conferences and workshops; we put together readings by ourselves and others. We push each other to develop as writers, to further our respective greater projects. My writing would not be what it is without this process.
I’ve also engaged in direct collaboration. A friend of mine with whom I had been in theater in college and had traded (terrible, horrible, no-good) poems with back then, J.Ed., suggested we work together to construct a writing routine. Harkening back to our theater days, we created characters and had them correspond. I would get into character, open an email from his character, read it and respond to it in character. Within three months, our characters improvisationally corresponded a novel-length narrative. Then for seven years J.Ed. and I collaboratively edited and rewrote to turn it into something “finished.”
All of us in collaboration—Maurice, J.Ed., Emily, Terri and my whole Peauxdunque gang and I—talk constantly about this world we’re living in, these conflagrations, about how to process it, and we talk about writing and writers and the greater conversation. Then we go back to our spaces and write. The things we write are our things, but they would not be the same without the part that comes from being together.
Writers collaborate all the time with workshop partners, editors, agents, and partners and spouses. (I tried to collaborate with my cats on this piece, but they wouldn’t let me sit in the chair they were occupying. Cats are not collaborators.)
Truly opening yourself to collaborative possibility requires sublimation of the ego. I owe the respect to the narratives I capture to work them as hard as I can, and to test them against the insights and talents of the writers in my communities.
My work succeeds best when I try to strip it from the thoughts that This is a great idea I’ve had, Dig my rhythm. Embracing collaboration gets me closer. (But it’s not easy. In my direct collaboration with J.Ed., there were loud arguments, me striding around a block while forcefully advocating to J.Ed. on the other end of the phone for my vision—hardly a sublimation of the ego).
Our intentions as writers are targets, aspirations, and as writers we constantly miss the mark. But this is the final way collaboration can aid us. If we are truly in collaboration with each other, then we can hold each other to the path when we stray.
Tad Bartlett’s work has appeared in the Oxford American, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Carolina Quarterly, Stockholm Review of Literature, and Bird’s Thumb, among others. He received his MFA from the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans. Tad is a founding member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.
Read Tad's short story, "Anti-heroically Yours."