August 24th, 2010

Collaborations I Have Loved

With all this talk about the “How to Be Alone” video, I have strangely been thinking about times I’ve worked with others and it’s been wonderful. I am fairly decent at being alone–it would be very hard to write stories and not be–but sometimes the solo, non-social nature of writing bugs me. Sure, it’s nice to have total control over most of what I write, me being a meglomaniac and all, but sometimes it is nice to have someone to talk to about how it’s all working out.

So I’ve always been in writing groups and workshops. It helps to get feedback on my own work, as well as to see what sorts of cool stuff others are getting up to. It helps to keep the conversation about writing going with smart people I respect. Of course, I listen carefully to editors and try to really engage with them on what they think a piece needs. When someone is willing to share some of the heavy lifting of writing, I let them–it’s still mine in the end, but sometimes being drawn out of my hot little skull to a fresh perspective from someone else’s skull is wonderfully liberating.

I’ve also gotten the opportunity to take the process of collaboration farther, to actual shared writing projects. One writing group I was in collaborated on a murder-mystery anthology. I felt this was a pretty brilliant idea, and since it didn’t quite work out, I’m hoping some other group will want to steal it–do you? What we did was, we brainstormed a character and a bit of backstory, and then a scenario in which she is found dead in her apartment building. Then each of us individually wrote a short story for one other tenant in the building, in which each person had motive and opportunity for the crime. Then we were going to collaborate on a final story, revealing the true killer, but the group disbanded before that happened. I’m still rather proud of my piece, though I have to admit that without the context of its sister stories, it doesn’t make complete sense. Still it was a really fun process–everyone went in such different directions that it was really entertaining, as well as instructive to hear the stories presented every meeting.

Somewhere around then, I was also writing a satirical romance round-robin style, with about a dozen other people. A round robin is where each person writes a paragraph adding on to what’s gone before. It’s like improv in the sense that you need to work with, not against, anything you are handed when you enter: if the write of the previous paragraph says that aliens landed, and you undermine it by saying that it was a hallucination brought on by bad ham, the forward momentum and structure of the piece is imperilled–you’ve just wasted 2 paragraphs, basically. But round-robin writing is, also like improv, best suited to silliness! Our love story was hilarious, but not anything anyone could actually print or publish or even read seriously. I also don’t think it had an ending.

An even simpler–and sillier–version of such shared stories is Little Papers (Petites Papiers), a game that I think Fred introduced me to (right, Fred?) in first-year university. This is a blind round robin–you sit in a circle, each writes one part of the story folds it over and passes it on to the next person to write the next bit. We always played with 3-6 people, but I think it would be fun even with 2. Our stories had a standard structure, as follows (how many great novels can you apply this structure to?)
Woman’s name
Man’s name
Where they meet
What she says to him
What he says to her
What happens next
Somehow the results were never not funny. I think you could also play it with less structure, just sentence-sentence-sentence, but that runs the risk of, like our round robin, never ending.

The round robin and little papers exercises are probably best suited to goof-off activities for word nerds, or classroom activities to teach kids of have fun with writing and enjoy working together. As serious fictional enterprises, maybe they won’t work so well (though I’d love to hear an example where 30 people wrote the great Canadian novel in round robin or some such). And also, these are a projects where collaboration is limited: everyone creates singly and contributes, rather than creating collectively. Creating collectively, as we know from marketing campaign brainstorms, focus group film endings and themed bridal showers, often ends in inane results, no results, or hand-to-hand combat.

So the only time I ever wrote something in full collaboration with someone–no “my-part-your-part”–was with someone I have always been comfortable throwing shoes at or biting*, my younger brother. We wrote three episodes of a sitcom together a couple years ago, mainly because we both laugh at the same stuff and have the same strong opinions on how sitcoms should be. Who knows it is actually a good idea to try to write something funny with someone with a similar sense of humour; certainly, not everyone agrees with us and perhaps it would help the universality of our show to have someone on the team who did not collapse in hysterics at our elaborate clowns-at-Starbucks setup.

It wasn’t all hilarity and delicious snack items, though–ok, it was mainly. We wrote it for no particular reason except it’s nice to have an activity sometimes; basically, to entertain ourselves. That certainly worked, though we did nearly come to blows about how to turn off track changes (on Word for Mac, apparently, you just never do). But I do think it was a good exercise in making a single unified work out of two disparate views (even if the disparity is only slight). Maybe next time I’ll work someone who is not a blood relative, even someone I wouldn’t chase with a stick. The sky is the limit.

But actually, I really liked working with my brother.

*What, like you weren’t hard on your siblings?

4 Responses to “Collaborations I Have Loved”

  • AMT says:

    “perhaps it would help the universality of our show to have someone on the team who did not collapse in hysterics at our elaborate clowns-at-Starbucks setup.”

    no, this is a terrible idea. please do NOT let any one onto your team if they don’t think ‘elaborate clowns-at-Starbucks setup’s are less than floor-worthy hysterical. i know *I* won’t talk to such people.

    (i am laughing as i write this…)


  • Scott Watson says:

    I had forgotten about the murder mystery anthology. I have a copy of my Wendy K story kicking around somewhere. Next time we meet would should try and resurrect it (well not the corpse as I don’t feel like writing paranormal). :)


  • Rebecca says:

    That’d be so fun! I am totally in (though if we want to include the others, you are going to have to track them down).


  • Nathalie says:

    Please do resurrect it! It’s a fantastic idea.


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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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