On collaboration

It sounds simple, but if you’re feeling a bit stuck creatively, a great place to turn is collaboration. Feeding off someone else’s energy and riffing on each other’s ideas can reinvigorate your process and push your boundaries into paths you don’t usually tread.

Ways to collaborate

Collaboration comes in so many forms that the only limit is what you can imagine. As I’ve seen writers put out “collab” poems on Instagram, I’ve taken to asking how they collaborated. The answers I’ve received are always varied: they traded off every other line or stanza, one person started the piece and the other finished, or they came together and worked side by side on the drafting and revision from start to finish.

These collabs can be one-offs, or they can be part of a bigger collaborative project. First Line Poets, for example, represents more than 100 poets who are paired weekly to provide a first line to their partner, who finishes the piece in their own style.

Editing can also be seen as collaboration; giving and receiving suggestions that changes a piece in some way, especially if the writer wouldn’t have considered that angle or word or literary device, is a form of creative partnership. This is why feedback is so important. We are better together than we are apart.

A recent collaboration

Recently I released a collaborative poem that I co-wrote with my friend Kanwal (@poemslikememory on Instagram). Our process definitely fell into the back-and-forth style of collaboration.

It started with her mentioning that a piece I had written reminded her of a concept called Pepper’s Ghost. I wasn’t familiar with the idea, so I asked her to explain, and I fell in love with both her explanation and the concept itself. It felt unfair to just take the idea and run with it, though, so I suggested we collaborate. I took a stab at some hodgepodge lines, using this phase to find our narrative point of view within such a specific phenomenon.

It was a messy start, but I delivered several options to Kanwal, who settled on an angle and returned a first draft. I liked the perspective, but the piece was clearly in her voice: rhyming and nostalgic. I tried to weave back in some of the original lines, but it broke the flow. Everything I tried felt smashed in, not deliberate.

Hitting roadblocks

When writing a poem, you have to balance form and function. This is true of all art. The trick with collaborating, especially when your styles differ so greatly like mine and Kanwal’s, is that one of those elements can fall by the wayside when pursuing harmony in the other.

For us, we had swung so far into function to create a cohesive narrative that form was struggling to keep up. I needed a breakthrough to resolve the rhythm and spacing of the piece before I could add my perspective in.

I dropped the whole draft into a 2-column table. The poem had two writers, why couldn’t it have two narrators as well? I put Kanwal’s lines on the left, and then pieced mine together on the right. I was feeling good as I sent a picture of the new layout back to her.

Coming together

She agreed the new structure solved a lot of the poem’s problems. Now we could re-focus on the narrative. We got feedback from some friends to get outside eyes–we’d wrestled with the piece so much that it was hard to tell what would make sense to someone who hadn’t seen every iteration of the draft–and then Kanwal put “Pepper’s Ghost” as the 27th prompt on her November prompts list.

When I saw that, I knew we needed to kick it into high gear. It became a tacit deadline to actually get this piece that we’d been passing back and forth for weeks, months even, finished and out into the world. Deadlines are the fire we need when the initial spark of excitement fades into the struggle of perfectionism.

She sent me more revisions on her half, which changed our narrative arc for the better. I followed her lead, and revised my half to match. Another round of that and we’d settled on the final words. All that was left was a title and coordinating the aesthetics of the post around our individual styles.

On November 27, we released the piece on Instagram, reveling in our pride for finally finishing it. I was also proud of the collaboration itself. Neither of us had ever written a collab poem with someone else before, and we worked well together–the right balance of pushing and forgiveness, fighting for our own vision and inviting in the other’s. We plan to collaborate again someday, but not until we’ve taken a few deep breaths.

What makes a good collaboration

Who you collaborate with is key. Despite our different writing styles, Kanwal and I make good collaborators because our friendship started in a setting where feedback was part of the culture. We both felt comfortable making suggestions, being vulnerable when we couldn’t figure out how to push through a block, and protecting our own voices on the page.

Not only does the finished piece truly represent both of us, but it’s also better and more interesting than it would be if either of us attempted to write it alone.

Working with someone else tunes you into the creative process itself. When you aren’t creating in a vacuum, you have to be more aware of who you are and how you create. It may also open your eyes to a different way of doing things, which can strengthen your independent creation too. No matter what you’re making, collaboration is a truly powerful thing.


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