The Call For Collaboration

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It would be nice to think there was another model, one that could inspire a pair of young, edgy writers to walk along lonely railroad tracks, kicking rocks and running dialog back and forth for the story they were writing.

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You know the myth of the young writer: hands in jeans pockets, he (invariably it’s a he) wanders the quais of the Seine before dawn, absorbing the hollow desperation of the city. His collar is up, his cigarette dim, and he stops to pass a bottle with homeless men whose faded French prison tattoos will certainly show up in his novel. The novel in question (about a guy like himself) is written on a roll of bathroom towels in his backpack. He doesn’t read, lest it corrupt his voice, and though he doesn’t speak much, he sees everything. He’s so outside he’s inside, which is why his novel will shine the excruciating light of truth back into the souls of average folks. Or he’s in an all-night diner outside Seattle, scribbling notes on placemats while salty eggs cool on the plates of truckers. This writer’s wearing and oilcoat and his novel’s about hitchhikers—he thinks it will probably end violently in Alaska. Or perhaps the writer we’re thinking of is in the Mission district, something terribly ironic printed on his shirt. His glasses are purposefully thick, and he’s somebody that looks so nobody that he’s obviously somebody. This novel’s about the underbelly of the underbelly, and man it’s raw.

Okay, I’ll stop there, you get the picture. Unfortunately, some version of this is what inspires many young writers, and I wish it wasn’t so. Not that I’m against aggrandizing artists into romantic figures—it would just be nice to have some variety in the models. How about mythologizing “The Generous, Friendly Dude Who Writes Every Single Day” or “That Softspoken Religious Lady Whose Prose is Dark and Mesmerizing”? Mostly I’m against the image of the writer as a lone, edgy brooder not so much because it’s inaccurate but because it’s of little use. Writing is hard work, and if anything’s true about the process, it’s the fact that a good story is hard to find and even trickier to get on paper. What’s less romantic than staring alone at a blank screen? And edgy? I’ve changed the cat litter because I didn’t know what my characters were going to say next.

The urge to create a fictional narrative is a mysterious one, and when an idea comes, the writer’s sense of what a story wants to be is only vaguely visible through the penumbra of inspiration. A good story feels both surprising and inevitable, fresh and familiar. When starting a story, it seems as if there are a million possible first lines, and if things go right, only one possible last one. Eventually, once the tumbling inertia of scene sets in and characters begin impose their own will on events, the story begins to dictate its own direction. But how to get from nothing to something? With so many elements outside the writer’s initial vision—where to open, what to show, where to go—how does the story get from uncertainty to inevitability?

A writer’s “toolbox” is one weapon against the unknown. While the myth of the lone-wolf writer gets much mileage from the noirish struggle with the creative process, most writers arm themselves with a knowledge of narrative tradition and convention. Instincts, even those amped by sangria and Marlboros, can only take a story so far. For a young writer, a grasp of fiction technique—things like perspective, point of view, tense, narrative distance, point of narration, and so on—should be worth way more than a Eurorail pass to Pamplona. Other, less-flashy qualities like patience, endurance and effort don’t hurt, either. I’m a pretty big believer in loyalty, and I try to treat my stories with the kind of commitment I’d show real people. The best new story ideas tend to come along just as a current one seems to be foundering, but it would be like cheating on a story to turn my gaze to a tempting new thing. Trekking through a novel, new story ideas are like those distant mud cities that appeared to Spaniards as bathed in golden light. At times like that a writer’s greatest tool is perhaps fidelity.

I’d like to propose adding collaboration to the writer’s toolbox, an idea that strikes at the core of popular culture’s conception of the writer as a lone saddleman of the literary prairie. Artists collaborate in music, cinema, theater, dance, and so on. But only one hand can hold a paintbrush or pen, most people would counter. Writers already work together in many ways—workshops, salons, editors, reading groups—yet true collaboration is considered outside the process. Is that because collaboration is in opposition to where stories come from and how they get on the page, or is it because it threatens our idea of what a storyteller is?

Updike & Sons

Somehow it’s fine for people to collaborate on a musical or an action movie, but the American novel is off limits. Rabbit, Run wasn’t written by Updike & Sons and The Joy Luck Club didn’t come from Tan and the Gang. The place where most interaction is seen between writers on their texts is in the workshops of the university MFA programs. Much vinegar is spilled over the “MFA story,” which is supposedly competent yet uninspired. By competent, it’s commonly thought that the writer’s toolbox is full, and by uninspired it means they’ve never seen a bullfight. That portrait’s just the opposite of our mythic would-be Kerouac, who is highly inspired, yet incompetent. Personally, I believe the proliferation of MFA programs is a good thing—more hounds to the hunt—and what’s wrong with learning the skills of writing first, so that when an important story comes along, it has a game author?

Every writer is given a gift or two—not much more—and his or her job is to learn the rest of the skills, so form and voice can be given to any character that comes along. One beginning writer will have an ear for dialog while another is mellifluously lyrical. So it goes for description, humor, voice, etc. Every writer can track his or her progression from leaning on the crutch of one skill until a new one was acquired. My first stories were all about setting, and then came stories that were pure action, and then I got point of view happy for a while. And then comes the day—often in an MFA program, sometimes in an old folks’ home—when all the skills have to be put together into organic storytelling. The key to learning is maintaining a repose of humility, and it is for posturing against this that I most fault the myths of being an artist. By telling artists-to-be to seek the mystery of writing, rather than the knowledge of it, they are doomed to be baffled and unable when they find it.

The great criticism of the MFA workshop is that in discussing any story, a committee will seek the consensus of a middle opinion, thus rounding off any highly original or risk-taking elements, leaving a capable but safe piece of art. Groupthink is a genuine danger in workshops, especially when short stories are under consideration. Novels are somewhat different. While a writer can be a little dictatorial in terms of imposing a will upon a short story, novels are political entities. By political I mean that competing concerns are subject to negotiation and compromise. If, for instance, an author wants to add some extra access to a character’s thoughts in a given chapter, the writer will gain a thoughtful, contemplative feel that invites the reader closer to the character. That extra internal narrative, however, is going to come at the expense of pacing, which will then alter the tone, which will then change the mood, and so on. Novels are so complex and interdependent that, like the dialectic of a workshop, every suggested action has to be weighed against many outcomes, some unintended and unforeseen. In that way, a central part of the process of writing a novel is a conversation about the process.

Which brings me to the notion of collaboration. My wife is a novelist, and beyond reading each other’s work editorially, we discuss our novels all the time. While writing my last novel, I asked her to help me with an element, and for several days, she roamed through my nearly completed book, typing here and there. A friend recently described making a change in her almost finished book as skipping a rock across the pond: the rock only touches water four or five times, though each one sends rings of concentric circles reverberating outward. So my wife skipped a rock through my book, and it was the better for it. Partly based on that, we decided to collaborate on a project that lasted nearly a year. The work was both wholly thrilling and often maddening. I don’t know if what we wrote will ever be published, but I feel like I did my best work under the influence of a peer, and I’m twice the writer for having done it. Here are a couple things I learned:

The mysterious charge of creating a character-driven narrative was no less hypnotic, though our ability to capture it on the page was doubled. We simply had twice the creative abilities. My wife has a strong sense of voice. I’m good at details. My dialog is suggestive; hers is smart and sassy. The simple truth is we were able to say and convey twice as much. When I was at a loss, she had a solution, and visa versa. When we both had solutions, we debated. When my precious lines and jeweled descriptions got tossed, it hurt. Sometimes it was simple necessity: we had two good lines and one had to go. Other times, I saw she was approaching a scene differently, striking a different note than I would have or revealing a different facet of character. Those were humbling and valuable looks at another writer’s process. Very rarely is one author allowed to enter another’s creative space, but once there you realize the range of ways to evoke character is far greater than you knew. Usually, the only option for understanding a writer’s intentions is to interpret the published work. But when you collaborate, you can ask her as she types.

Commitment became an important aspect of the work, and soon the story was more important than its authors. With ownership less of an issue, the focus moved away from us and toward the characters. One result of this is the fact that we rarely lost control of the narrative, by which I mean we tended not to go off on tangents that suited and authorial fancy at the expense of the characters’ progression. Writer’s block seemed like less of an issue as we inspired each other and fed off one another’s ideas, though we did lose productive days to debate and sometimes argument.

Finally, the conversation about the novel became one of my favorite aspects of the collaboration. Wittgenstein said to measure a thing is to change it. I think that’s why humans rarely take stock of their own lives and instead evaluate art. Collaboration somehow made it feel like we were managing to do both. Leaving no narrative move unquestioned, our decision making became focused on how we could reveal character on as many different levels as possible. The challenge was to demystify the act of writing without demystifying its inspiration. So, like jurists, we sought the truth of our characters’ experiences by arraigning their perceptions before the bar of human behavior. I know that sounds like a tall order. It was, and it didn’t always work, but if I was to set an ideal model for writing, with the best possible intentions, it would have been this one.

I wish I would’ve been asked to collaborate on just one story for a workshop back in my MFA program. I would have hated it, of course, because it would’ve meant that I’d have to question all my instincts, that I’d have to get off the crutch of my limited skills, and that I’d have to write a true character for once, a fictitious person that wasn’t a guised version of myself. I would have had to ask, out loud, questions like: What is this story about, what is this scene trying to show, and what’s at the heart of this character? And I’d have had to listen to another writer answer. For once it would have been about writing and not “being a writer.”

I’m not suggesting that there should be two names on every book, and I’m sure that, years from now, young writers will still turn to the Bukowskis and Keroacs for models of how to tell stories that matter. It would be nice to think there was another model, though, one that could inspire a pair of young, edgy writers to walk along lonely railroad tracks, kicking rocks and running dialog back and forth for the story they were writing. Or better yet: a husband and wife team in Nikes, debating about how to close a novel chapter as one folds laundry and the other changes a diaper.

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See Also: From Bank Robber To Author: Joe Loya’s Journey


Adam Johnson is the author of Emporium and Parasites Like Us. More from this author →