Divide and Conquer November 10, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
Tags: Books, Cognitive Science, Serendipity
Yesterday, we spent most of the day with poet Allison Joseph, who was here for the Tabula Poetica Reading Series. She mentioned her husband, Jon Tribble, several times. They met when they were both students in Indiana University’s MFA program and are, therefore, a writing couple like us. They both write creative pieces. They both teach, too, though Jon’s primary responsibilities, like Doug’s, are outside the classroom. They are both literary editors; Allison is Poetry Editor for Crab Orchard Review and Jon edits the Crab Orchard poetry book series.
Anna’s parents shared the same career path, both attorneys who served in state government and then opened their own private practice. Dinner conversation sometimes involved their two minds working through a particular case together. Each had different strengths, somewhat different ways of looking at an issue, but they spent their professional lives looking at very much the same issues at the same time with roughly the same educational background. Anna’s parents, like Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble, built camaraderie out of shared passions and encouraged each other (despite their deeply held baseball rivalry).
We, too, have a lot in common, feel camaraderie, and share our passions. We both currently have large writing projects—big things, as our writer-friend Cathy Day would say—and jobs at the same academic institution. We share a lot of interests, are both generally curious, and spur each other on. But we work in different disciplines. In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson writes, “encouragement does not necessarily lead to creativity. Collisions do—the collisions that happen when different fields of expertise converge in some shared physical or intellectual space.” Our home, in some small way, creates collisions of ideas.
Even when we work on projects together, like Lofty Ambitions, we spend a good deal of time planning, strategizing, and organizing our pursuits so as to take advantage of the sum of our parts. One way that we accomplish this is through the time-honored tradition of divide-and-conquer. We do this with our reading; Anna just finished Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program, and while it was a very good read, Doug probably won’t read it too (he’s reading a book about nuclear rockets). We do this with our professional development at shared conferences; last year at AWP, out of the dozens of sessions we each attended, we only attended two jointly. We do this even in our various campus commitments; today Doug attended a lecture on consciousness, even though this is an area that’s probably of greater interest to Anna.
Of course, it isn’t enough just to cover a lot of intellectual ground. We also must share the information that we have garnered separately, and try to help one another make sense of any newfound tidbits that have spurred our curiosity. Sometimes, we begin the shared process of working through our individual experiences in the immediate aftermath of an inspiring book or an insightful panel presentation. Other times, we won’t revisit the experiences until months later when a seemingly unrelated event stirs the memory of something we’ve read. Maybe that’s what Johnson calls the slow hunch, a kind of serendipity that requires time or accumulation.
We’ve begun to develop a working theory (or model) that tries to explain why we enjoy doing this. In part, we’ve come to feel that it’s because our respective intellectual disciplines—Creative Writing for Anna and Computer Science for Doug—rely heavily on the translation of concepts, ideas from one domain into another. Writers create narratives from experiences and ideas; poets create poems with words, using the skills and techniques of that genre. Programmers create software; for a program that allows computers to track the flow of money through a business, a computer scientist learns about a domain, like accounting, and then applies programming skills, techniques, and conventions to that domain.
Because both our fields depend heavily on craft, we share a set of working processes. This isn’t the first time that we’ve been struck by the similarities between creative writing and creating software—and we’re not the first to notice it. In fact, Richard Gabriel, known for his work on the Lisp programming language, earned his PhD in computer science and his MFA in poetry and published Writers’ Workshops and the Work of Making Things.
Collaboration—and writing as a couple—can mean different things in different situations. Anna’s parents may have worked on different cases, but they really were working side by side on the same projects. Doug’s parents chose separate career paths—Doug’s father is an engineer and his mother, a fourth-grade teacher. They cheered each other on, but didn’t collaborate professionally (though parenthood might be considered a profession when there are five kids).
It’s tricky to figure out how best to collaborate, and how to strike a balance between commonly shared knowledge and skills and differentiated knowledge and skills. Anna has collaborated with others, most recently with Larissa Szporluk on an essay in Mid-American Reviewand with Cathy Day and Stephanie Vanderslice on an essay under consideration.She’s actively cultivating the form she calls “the conversation essay.” Doug collaborated on his book, SQUEAK: A Quick Trip to Objectland. These projects allowed us to figure out some tricky things, get projects done, and discover how a project can exceed what an individual can accomplish. We didn’t always work together the way we do now, but we’ve always wanted to share our intellectual and creative lives. We’ve reached a stage that seems especially productive, and we’re starting to surmise why.