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Hey, Collaborator

Outside where I work there are two homeless people jamming. One is playing flute, the other, guitar. There’s no better backdrop for thoughts on collaboration, even if I do wish they’d quiet down and stop drowning out my music.

Collaboration is, for me, a fairly foreign beast. One I appreciate and look up to, but don’t fully understand the logistics of. I have to admit, even as the frontman in a band I was much more of a dictator than a collaborator. My feeling was that I had written the songs and wanted to make sure they were presented in the way I wanted them to be presented. And that is the crux of my difficulty with collaboration: when I do something I feel an inherent ownership and as a result want that project to reflect what I want it to reflect. To collaborate is to give up some of your ownership, which requires trust, and trusting isn’t something I’m great at, either.

Certainly as a publisher there’s a level of collaboration in the presentation of a writer’s work. It’s an enormous weight I feel when I work on the design of someone else’s writing. If I do it correctly, in my opinion, the design should compliment the writing, almost as if it were in stage directions to me from the writer. But at the same time there is the impulse to put a little of one’s own artistic aesthetic into it.

Recently, while reading PANK 4 I was really impressed with the collaborative poems by Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney that started off the issue, which is what started the wheels rolling on my questions about collaboration. I then thought about Twin Sons of Different Mirrors a book of collaborative poems by Jack Driscoll and Bill Meissner. Having had the good fortune to work with Driscoll during my MFA I know that these poems started when Meissner, out of the blue, sent a piece of paper with two lines on it to Driscoll, who then wrote two lines and sent it back. All the poems in the book were written this way.

Certainly, not all collaborations work the same way, which makes it even harder for me to pin down and understand in some sort of logical way that I could make my brain try to process. So what is your favorite writerly collaboration? What is your favorite story about a collaborative process?

  • Ryan W. Bradley has pumped gas, changed oil, painted houses, swept the floor of a mechanic's shop, worked on a construction crew in the Arctic Circle, fronted a punk band, and managed an independent children's bookstore. He now works in marketing. His latest book is Nothing but the Dead and Dying, a collection of stories set in Alaska. He lives in southern Oregon with his wife and two sons.

11 thoughts on “Hey, Collaborator

  1. Lily Hoang (Collabo Queen), a.k.a. “Lighting Fingers” Lily, taught me to have no fear. We traded lines, passages, paragraphs, stanzas, words, phrases, punctuation marks, etc., in a days-long back and forth. I haven’t written as much since.

    Safe travels, Lily.

  2. anyone else think about Vichy reading the title of this? maybe i still have “inglourious basterds” near the top of my head, having just seen it.

    i’ve tried to collaborate with a number of folks. keep getting turned down. feels like i’m back in high school, sitting in the school library, reading about gacy and gein, assuring myself that better years are to come.

  3. i think collaboration is really compelling for fiction. like ryan said, have like a little “band” or something.

    the problem though is humility, I guess. also, in writing, the term ‘ghostwriter’ or “with such & such” makes it sound not as good as an “individual” vision.

    guess like an anthology is a collaboration of sorts, or all stories around a theme. sometimes i enjoy those, sometimes i don’t.

  4. There’s something mysterious in collaboration for me. I’ve done a lot of it with all sorts of artist types, and nothing I do on my own is as pleasurable or meaningful as the stuff I do with another person or group of people. Even publishing my book was not really all that meaningful until I realized how much of a collaboration it was. But what is it that I love so much? I can’t pin it down. I just know that at the center of it is this deep appreciation for the talents of my friends and the awesome conversation I can have with them in collaboration. It’s not that I don’t have an ego, far from that. And maybe it’s even the opposite. Maybe collaboration is a way to show off to my collaborators what I can do. Plus, have one collaborator and you’ve likely at least doubled your potential audience. But to be able to bring your own talent and to find a way to match it to someone else’s, to have creative freedom but to work it towards a project goal, man that’s the best. It makes me feel so lucky.

    1. i like the idea of working with a publisher being a collaboration. i can’t speak to how often that is the case, but i know personally i’m always looking to do right by an author’s work.

  5. It seems having people review your work and offer suggestions is another form of collaboration too. I’ve found some writers very open to this and some not so. I think feedback often make the stories and poems better or it at least forces the author to think about them in a different way and that is priceless.

    1. thanks, greg, i hadn’t thought of that as collaboration, but i imagine it depends on the kind of group you’ve assembled that looks at your work and offers their input.

  6. all writing is collaborative. we weren’t born knowing the language, of course, and in fact every sentence construction you type or word you spill out comes from the cultural soup.

    that said, the state of copyright-centered authorship has a ling investment in individuality, and it’s hard to find collaborators of like minds and timetables.

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