All artists are alike. They dream of doing something that’s more social, more collaborative, and more real than art.
Dan Graham (conceptual artist)
I cut this quote out of an art magazine years ago and have kept it taped to my office wall. I think of writers as artists, and I think Graham’s notion speaks to writers equally, perhaps even more so. In our lonely world of the page, there are few opportunities to share our work, or for that matter, our process synchronously. I think this is why so many of us seek out teaching, conferences, and the “workshop.” Periodically I have fantasies where my writing interacts with the world in a way that is “more social,” “more real.” I imagine that Apple builds me a bungalow with digital, interactive pages for walls so that I, and others, could create stories that readers could actually walk through and inhabit. Or I imagine that I find someone who wants to illustrate my novel-in-progress as a creative exercise for both of us. Or, because I have a weakness for crime drama television, that the FBI starts a creative writing unit, charged with coming up with every possible narrative surrounding a crime. Finally, writers are needed to save the day.
While these fantasies represent the largely improbable, the same social yearning has led me to more productive spaces, namely, of collaboration. I used to feel very private about and protective of my works-in-progress, but have come to love suggestions and interruptions from early, trusted readers. My husband, a very talented poet, and I have been working on a lyric epistolary text in response to the old folk song In the Pines (made famous by Lead Belly, adapted by Nirvana and Smog, among others). When I look back at what we’ve written, I find that our writing begins to blend together so that I am not always able to decipher immediately who wrote what section. Work I do recognize as my own accesses an aesthetic I normally don’t inhabit. My writing has become like a chameleon, adapting to the slow, dark waltz-like motions of the song and to my husband’s more abstract, Jungian prose. It’s thrilling to be influenced so, and pushed into new creative territories.
But perhaps the true power of collaboration is most obvious in the work my students produce together. With beginning writers, collaborative projects often yield writing that is more alive and dynamic than what they produce on their own. The group mentality produces confidence, a willingness to take risks, and yes, some silliness, but I’d say it is productive silliness. The kind that lets them not take themselves so seriously, to get their egos out of the way, and to see what it means to let the work take them where it wants to go. I’d like to share one of the collaborative projects that has been successful in the classroom, and that students have enjoyed.
Improv for fiction writers:
Have one student outline a story, briefly describing setting, 2-3 characters, and an action or conflict. Then have students switch papers with someone and write the story their partners have outlined.
This is great: students are forced to create worlds on the page they otherwise wouldn’t. Last time I did this with a class, we had an odd number so I paired up with a student. She had me writing a story that took place in an apple orchard with a grandfather, his daughter, and his grandson. There was an argument over who would get on the ladder to pick apples. I never would have set a piece in this kind of landscape on my own, and appreciated the task of grafting my often stranger aesthetic onto so homegrown a scene. My students reported similarly: they found rich results possible in fictional spaces they would not have ventured in without the prompting of a partner. They also enjoyed seeing what their partners did with their prompts, always wildly different than what they were imagining—and a reminder of the unending possibilities that lie around every corner in producing fiction.