Against “A Room of One’s Own”

I have great respect for the writings of Virginia Woolf and her stake in the feminist movement, but the title of her book sprang to mind when I started to think about the writing life. There are innumerable books that discuss the writer’s life, the long and lonely journey on the page, and ultimately the inner turmoil writers go through. One of my favorite is Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life by Bonnie Freedman.

Everyone knows that a guitar can sound good, but that it usually sounds its best when accompanied by drums, bass guitar and vocals. Musicians working in concert with one another are greater than the sum of their parts. (Sorry, I couldn’t pass that pun up.) Although one man may create music for each instrument, it requires several music makers joining to create a complete symphony. My analogy comparing music to writing is not a precise fit, but it will lead the way.

I want to address collaboration between writers. Every time a piece of writing is workshopped in a class or sent to an editor, collaboration is taking place. Let’s move beyond this though. Take the idea one step further…

Two July’s ago at the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference, I attended a class lead by author Sam Ligon, who envisioned a collaboration between prose writers and poets. The requirements were that each segment shouldn’t be over 200+ words. In addition, each new section must use a sentence from the previous one as its first line. The pieces layered prose and poetry on top of one another, pulling a line or phrase from somewhere within the preceding section. I was paired with the talented prose writer Elizabeth Thorpe and we completed two separate pieces. As writers, we created a piece of work that neither of us could have envisioned on our own.

In a successful piece, there is a distinct tension between the prose and poetry. Each section not only builds on what has come before, but also adds something new or turns the phrase in a new way. Sometimes a piece like this can tear itself apart when the authors have varied ideas or agendas. And as in all writing, sometimes a piece of writing fails for other reasons. It does not gel as it should. Any writer who has been putting pen to page or font to computer screen knows that not every word sees the light of day. We sometimes give birth to ugly babies.

There are other types of collaboration as well. Since September, the poet John Myers and I have been giving one another writing assignments. They range from the simple to the complex. Make an erasure poem from an online quiz. Write an anti-Betty White poem that features both a vessel of some kind and William Shatner in blank verse. Clearly, we are strange individuals. What these writing prompts have done is taken me out of my familiar tracks—my habitual ways of thinking and writing. Only about a third of the prompts have gone on to be successful poems. These constrictions placed on me by another person have caused me to stretch my writing muscles and rise to the occasion. The things that I learn in writing these exercises come to play in my “serious” work as well.

You can take this further. If you are a prose writer or poet, you can collaborate with another individual on single pieces. My friend John has worked on collaborative poems with others in open source Google documents. Each person can access a poem at any time or even write on it simultaneously—even if they live on the other side of the world. As I have said, not every piece is a successful work of art.

Collaboration takes the artist out of the locked box of his or her head. It broadens the familiar envisioning process of the piece. Put simply, it ups the ante. It is one thing to do work for yourself, but another entirely to work with another person in co-creation. I encourage all writers to try their hand at joining their words with another’s. Take the chance. Risk wrecking what’s working for you to discover an entirely new set of tools.
Most of all have fun!

Posted in a room of one's own, about poetry, bonnie friedman, collaboration, Elizabeth Thorpe, john myers, music, Sam Ligon, the writing life, virginia woolf, writing past dark.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *