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Writing Together, Writing Apart September 28, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
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In July, Anna headed for Sewanee Writers’ Conference, where she participated in the poetry workshop run by William Logan and Debora Greger and a host of other activities. For those two weeks apart, we kept writing together here at Lofty Ambitions. Separated by two-thirds of the country, we also went back and forth via email and phone on a draft of an article about Titusville, where we stayed on our Space Coast visits.

Sewanee Writers' Conference

Though we didn’t stop writing together for those two weeks, it resembled a cobbling together. Our cell phones worked poorly, so we depended on the internet to exchange ideas and drafts. We faced some miscommunication and bad timing. Because Anna was often booked from breakfast (earlier in the day than she likes to be booked) through an evening reading, and sometimes into those infamous writerly gatherings that follow, Anna revised and posted, but Doug took the lead in drafting during those two weeks. Usually, if one of us takes the lead for a post, that leading-the-charge emerges out of interest and inclination, not out of day-to-day scheduling constraints and assigned responsibility. We’ve established a rhythm over the last year and grown familiar with each other’s perspectives and voices on the page, so we managed to keep writing together just fine.

Really, though, despite our collaborative efforts, those two weeks meant writing apart. By writing apart, we mean that we each have our own separate writing projects.

Novel Revision

These individual projects are especially challenging because we are collaborators. A book project is daunting for any individual, of course. Every writer faces obligations to, say, a paying job, family, and whatever keeps him or her from the necessary hours of writing every week or every day. In these ways, we are no different than any other two writers trying to finish books. The difference is our awareness that our writing together competes with our writing apart, that time spent collaborating on blog posts and article drafts means time not spent on our individual book projects.

We remain keenly aware that it’s all good writing time, no matter which project. But we can fool ourselves because writing together feels generous, unselfish. Collaboration skirts around the loneliness and sole responsibility that sometimes plague a writer. So, we actively encouraging each other to keep our separate hands on our individual projects every day or two. We’re leery of letting our individual selves off the hook under the illusion of being needed by and being appreciated by the other of us.

Now, as autumn opens up before us, Anna is trying to get her head around her poetry and nonfiction projects. Meeting poets Debora Greger, Mary Jo Salter, and Claudia Emerson reminded her how important poetry is to her writing life and demonstrated that other women poets are interested in some of the same seemingly odd topics, including nuclear radioactivity exposure and space exploration. Claudia Emerson recommended the book Multiple Exposures, which Anna now keeps at her bedside for nighttime reading.

Multiple Exposures is a book Doug will probably read, too, because radioactivity is a topic where our interests and projects intersect. Even when we read and write apart, we bump into each other.

Doug has his own book project. This summer, he reorganized his novel outline, refocusing The Chief and the Gadget for a start-to-finish overhaul. As never before, he knows where the draft stands and what must be done. Like any novel writer who sticks with it, finishing becomes a matter of time.

In deciding to write apart as we are also writing together, we have decided to take the long view of our writing careers. We juggle projects instead of working sequentially on one thing, then the next. Many writers do this without working collaboratively, as often a writer must have several projects in motion to see which one hits when. Most productive writers must become adept at planning, at setting and meeting deadlines, and at understanding each project’s parts and arc.

We came to these recent projects with very different project management styles. Anna has long been a deadline-oriented, daybook planner kind of gal. (In fact, her nickname by the end of college was Julie, the Cruise Director.) Doug, on the other hand, made it through several careers and graduate programs without a daybook planner. When he started his novel project, he also began to trust the organization of his life to Google Calendar. Sure, we often misjudge how long a given thing will take to draft and revise, and sometimes we forget that it’s Wednesday and scramble to pull a post together. And we’ve each had to accommodate the other’s style, benefiting from the combination of daybook and come what may.

The danger of writing together is that it makes writing apart harder to manage. Mostly, it is rewarding to move back and forth between writing together and writing apart. But when we fall behind or miss our self-imposed deadlines, it is on our individual projects, not on the blog or other collaborations. A year ago, Anna thought it would take two months to revise her novel manuscript with the pointed feedback she had received. But somewhat unexpectedly, we traveled to the Space Coast last November to see a shuttle not-launch (view that series HERE). Four such trips in eight months was great for writing together. The shuttle’s end set an external clock. As a result, Anna’s novel revision took an entire year. We see each other every day; our collaboration carries immediacy.

William Logan & Debora Greger

The reward of writing together is that it makes writing apart easier to manage. We see each other every day; our collaboration is a daily reminder that we’re writers. Anna’s workshop leaders at Sewanee are a couple. They do not write books or blogs together, but they both write poetry and are intellectual partners. According to William Logan, to make such a relationship work, “You need to revel in each other’s successes.” Not only does this advice advocate against jealousy, it advocates for a writing couple’s individual projects. We imagine astronaut couples are in a similar situation, understanding each other’s careers but not assigned to the same missions. (See Astronaut Shannon Walker speak to this in our video interview HERE).

Our approach to writing together and apart makes us feel as if it’s possible to become more than the sum of our parts. To calculate it that way means keeping track of the parts, cheering each other on, taking up each other’s slack. William Logan added that it was vital to see an individual success as “a victory for both of us.” Writing together, writing apart—it’s all shared victory when it works.

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Comments»

1. Maggie Dohr - September 29, 2011

And you have done such a fantastic service to all your readers of making science, space technology and so many other topics down-to-earth (pun intended) and understandable. Thanks.


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